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Guest Writers & Interviews

You are going to love the interview I have for you today!

Writing is a "subject" that stresses out many homeschool parents and kids. I get a lot of questions on the blog and in coaching sessions about writing, usually along these lines, "My kids' don't like to write. What do I do?" 

I prefer an interest-led, everyday communication approach to writing instruction. In brief, writing to communicate student-motivated thoughts and ideas. But I have my moments of doubt when I think I should be "requiring" more and that my kids should be "producing" more writing. In these moments of doubt I look to those who have gone before me for wisdom and support. I look to homeschool parents like Patricia Zaballos.

Patricia is an educator, a homeschool parent and writer. She recently published a book called Workshops Work! which is all about creating an audience for your child's writing in the form of a writer's workshop.

Patricia has years of experience facilitating writer's workshops for kids. She has taken that wisdom, plus her personal story as a homeschooling mother of three, and written a fabulous how-to manual for those of us new to writer's workshops. Her book Workshops Work! walks us through the entire process, providing a whole toolkit of ideas, examples, and anecdotes to get us going.

I reviewed Patricia book before publication and I am so happy to recommend it to you as an excellent resource in your homeschool toolkit.

Today I'm interviewing Patricia a bit about her book but also about writing in general.

What I really want to know is how can we teach our children to write without all the angst that often accompanies it?

Let's talk to Patricia and find out.

~~~

Patricia, you're a homeschooling mom. How many kids do you have and how old? Have you always homeschooled? If no, when did you make the switch?

My kids are 20, 17 and 11. We homeschooled from the start. I'd been an elementary teacher before that, and I became intrigued with the possibilities of learning outside the confines of a classroom. My oldest homeschooled until he was sixteen, and then decided to go to high school for two years. He is now a junior in college, studying film production. My daughter homeschooled until she was fourteen, and then decided to go to high school as a freshman. She's now a junior. My youngest is still homeschooling.

As you probably know many homeschoolers fret a lot about writing. Your book addresses one very real solution to this - creating a writer's workshop to provide a supportive peer group and audience for our children's writing. What other advice can you give homeschool parents about how to teach writing to our kids? 

I think we often misunderstand how kids really learn to write. School experiences have convinced us that writing is something that must be taught; I would argue that learning to write should not be so very different from learning to talk. It can happen quite naturally and painlessly if we allow it to evolve on its own timetable.

Many parents underestimate how much kids learn to write simply by reading and being read to. Kids who grow up in literature-rich homes naturally develop expansive vocabularies. They seem to pick up how literature works by osmosis, especially if they are allowed to dwell in books and genres that interest them. It's especially useful if families talk about books and stories and films together, so kids can develop opinions and insights about what they like and dislike in literature.

Along those lines, kids learn to write simply by talking. If they grow up in homes where ideas are discussed and debated, where their own ideas are valued, those kids learn how to speak clearly, logically and enthusiastically. That will absolutely carry over into their writing, eventually. I have talked to many, many homeschooling parents of kids who did very little writing in their younger years, yet who somehow magically developed into writers as teenagers. It isn't magic that does it; it's the fact that the kids grew up in literate homes in which the kids' ideas were valued. All the reading and talk of childhood can transition into writing without too much difficulty if it isn't forced.

Of course, the more kids write, the better they will get at it. One of the most important things parents can do is help kids find authentic, exciting reasons to write. By authentic, I mean writing for a real purpose, rather than writing because a parent or teacher has assigned it. It can be a challenge to find real writing formats that excite a kid.

The best place to start is the child's interests. I can't tell you how many parents I've talked to whose kids became enthusiastic about writing for the first time in order to chat online while playing Minecraft! Look for opportunities like that, and don't underestimate their value, even if the writing looks sloppy, error-riddled and unacademic. Once kids understand the power of making words work for them, they will want to keep doing it, and will get better at it.

I wrote a longer article about these ideas called How Do Kids Really Learn to Write? It gives several examples of authentic writing possibilities, based on kids' interests.

(And yes, writer's workshops are one of the best writing motivators I know!)

We parents can do more damage than good if we do too much "teaching" when it comes to writing. Our teaching is likely to be based on our school experiences with writing--and most of us did not receive good, useful writing instruction in school. That's why most adults are self-conscious about their writing abilities!

Most writers will tell you that they had to overcome and forget what they learned in school in order to learn to write well. Kids who grow up in literate homes develop excellent instincts about writing. Don't muck that up! Rather than teaching too much, we should be providing excellent models of writing for our kids: good books on topics that interest them. Then, if we help our kids find authentic reasons to write, those opportunities will provide organic, real reasons to get better at writing.

You have a son in college. What advice can you share with us about preparing our kids for college writing? Many of us (ok, maybe just me) despair that our children will never be ready for college writing and we are tempted to use methods we're not comfortable with just to "see results".

Honestly, I think we should worry less about preparing our kids, and do whatever we can to help them enjoy writing right now. Kids who find a writing forum that they enjoy will dig into it. They will learn what it means to tinker with words, to move them and change them until the words express what the kids are trying to say. It doesn't matter if they develop this expertise by writing longwinded fantasy stories, or reviews on video game forums. Kids who know how to manipulate words for their own purposes will be able to take on any writing format that gets thrown at them by the time they're of college age.

There may be a small learning curve, but they will adapt because they understand how to work with words. Also, they know the joy of saying just what they want to say in writing! On the other hand, kids who are marched through a bunch of writing formulas and formats may never really learn to make words work for them. If the required writing doesn't matter to them, they will put their energy into guessing at what the teacher or parent wants--not what they want to say. They won't learn to write well.

One of my favorite writing encouragements comes from writer and college English professor Thomas Newkirk:

"The good writers I see in college have often developed their skill in self-sponsored projects like journals or epic, book-length adventure stories they wrote on their own." Our task as parents really ought to be helping our kids find those self-sponsored projects!

 

Rather than pushing formal essays on kids, we can expose them to wonderful nonfiction writing on topics that interest them. If they like sports, find excellent sports writing; if they enjoy music, films or videogames, search out well-written reviews on those topics. Just the other day I saw an anthology of the best writing in mathematics! There's something for everyone. If you find nonfiction that your child enjoys, talk to him or her about it. Find out what they like and dislike about it. Help them develop opinions about which writers are their favorites and why. (This is all essay-writing practice, even if it feels like casual conversation!) After reading for a while, kids may feel inspired to try writing similar nonfiction their own. Emulating one's writing heroes is one of the best ways to learn to write.

Teens might enjoy taking part in a research paper workshop, in person with other kids, or online. You could use the book The Curious Researcher, by Bruce Ballenger, as a guide. This is a college-level text, but it could easily be adapted for teenagers. Older versions of the text are quite affordable. I like this guide because it encourages students to write a paper based on a personal interest, and it helps them hone in on their questions and curiosities about the topic, and to structure the writing around those questions. It teaches them to think like writers, and to write work that is both academic and engaging. Hallelujah! Teenagers could meet regularly to discuss and share their work in progress, adapting the text to their needs. Such a workshop would probably be best facilitated by an adult, but eager teenagers might be able to do it on their own.

Any last words of advice or wisdom about writing for parents just starting out with homeschooling?

Try not to worry so much about teaching writing, and instead take up writing yourself! Find a forum that excites you: a blog, a personal journal, even your Facebook updates. Dabble in poetry if you like it, or write about your kids. Consider taking a writing class, or finding a writing group, if that sounds exciting to you. I wrote more about this on my blog. If you experience the joys and frustrations of writing yourself, you will be able to offer better writing advice to your kids. It won't be based on your schooling; it will be based on your real writing experiences. It will be useful.

~~~

I loved what Patricia shared with us here. Thank you Patricia!

This was a long post (and if you are a homeschooling parent I do recommend you read it all) and if you need a recap I've pulled the important points out for you. More homeschoolers need to hear the freedom of this message.

  • Learning to write should not be so very different from learning to talk. It can happen quite naturally and painlessly if we allow it to evolve on its own timetable. If (kids) grow up in homes where ideas are discussed and debated, where their own ideas are valued, those kids learn how to speak clearly, logically and enthusiastically. That will absolutely carry over into their writing, eventually.
  • One of the most important things parents can do is help kids find authentic, exciting reasons to write.
  • Kids who know how to manipulate words for their own purposes will be able to take on any writing format that gets thrown at them by the time they're of college age.
  • Try not to worry so much about teaching writing, and instead take up writing yourself!

Patricia has a great homeschool blog and make sure to check out her book Workshops Work! Do you want to inspire and support meaningful writing in your homeschool? Consider the role of writer's workshops for kids and use Patricia's book as your guide.

Today I'm pleased to introduce Leah Cherry to FIMBY.

Leah Cherry teaches children and their families how to cook, sew, make and grow – traditional talents that remain essential for living well today.

Her business, Skill It, is founded on the belief that working with your hands nourishes your spirit and connects you to family and community. Her signature online class, Season’s Eatings, is offered four times a year to create joy, fun, and connection around food and family dinner time.

When I heard about the work Leah does I asked her to share with us about her upcoming course, Season's Eatings.

~~~

Family dinner can be a sacred, restorative time in our day.  It is a welcome chance to slow down, connect, and nourish both our bodies and our relationships with one another.

How we get our food on the table can be simple and fun. It can make everyone in the house feel useful, valuable, and empowered. Working with our hands nourishes our spirits and connects us to the inherent pleasure of a job well done. And when something is handmade or homemade, we taste, smell, and sense the difference.

At heart, Skill It was inspired by a desire to bring joy to the kitchens and dinner tables of families near and far. We created our online class, Season’s Eatings, to create inspiration and connection around the pleasures of cooking and eating together.

In addition to honoring their skills and abilities, working with your kids in the kitchen instills a deeper appreciation and joy around nourishing themselves. It is also a way to pass on family knowledge and traditions. Whether you’re making a beloved grandmother’s recipe or simply telling stories about your childhood, you are creating memories and forming new traditions of your own.

When give the opportunity, children are focused, competent, and wonderfully independent cooks.

Our journey in the kitchen is focused on how you can nurture that desire to work in your little ones.  Whether they are washing salad greens, chopping up vegetables, or setting the table, little hands thrive when they are occupied with a helpful pursuit. {Big hands do, too!}

Together with your children, you can create meals from simple, seasonal foods in a way that honors their naturally delicious flavors. You can create a rhythm and a routine of working gracefully together. As the head chef in your family, you set the tone with your example.

Creating a peaceful, encouraging and patient approach in the kitchen lets your kids feel comfortable trying, experimenting, and exploring.

For four weeks in November, Season’s Eatings offers recipes, activities, and inspiration to make this vision of family dinnertime come to life in your home. More than just a class, it is community that celebrates the beauty of cooking together as a family. From wherever we happen to be, we gather at one big table, laughing, talking, and celebrating over bowls of steaming soup and plates of roasted vegetables. Bringing joy to our families, one dish, and one day, at a time.

Click here to learn more and register for Season’s Eatings.

~~~

Doesn't this sound fabulous? You can see why I asked Leah to join us here today. Leah is also offering FIMBY readers a special discount for the course. Just enter “FIMBY” at checkout. All that course for just $15!

And because what's a food post without a recipe Leah shares her Skill It Beet Soup recipe. Perfect for this time of year.

Ingredients

  • 1 large rib celery, diced
  • 2 large carrots, diced
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 2 quarts vegetable stock
  • 2 medium red beets, julienned or grated
  • 2 small yellow potatoes, julienned or diced
  • ½ small head green cabbage, shredded
  • 1 15 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 T. herbs de provence
  • 2 bay leaves
  • olive oil
  • salt & pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Heat olive oil in a large soup or stock pot and sautee first three ingredients until onions are tender and translucent, about 5-7 minutes.
  2. Add herbs de provence, pepper, and bay leaves and stir to distribute evenly. Then add potatoes, beets, and tomatoes and enough stock to cover all ingredients. Bring the soup up to a boil and then turn the heat down to a simmer.
  3. Stir in shredded cabbage and continue simmering until all vegetables are tender, about 30-45 minutes.
  4. To serve, ladle hot soup into large bowls and garnish with fresh dill. For a traditional borscht, you can also add a little spoonful of sour cream.

Kids of all ages can help by cutting carrots & celery with scissors – adults cut them into thin strips first. You can also cut potatoes into strips and pass those along to little hands to cut with a small table or paring knife, depending on their age & confidence level.

Older children can help with grating the beets and cabbage with a traditional box grater. If you are making a lot of soup, you can also have them help run these through a food processor. {Kids do love pressing the buttons on this piece of equipment!}

Click here to learn more and register for Season’s Eatings.

Today I'm happy to introduce you to my friend Louise Johnson. Louise lives in Maine, which is where we met. She's an adventurous mom to four boys, ages 8 through 18 months, with another adoptive son still in Haiti. 

Louise also homeschools and blogs at Just Us and chronicles their adoption journey here

Louise started a homeschool hiking group in their community and I asked her to share her experiences in an interview.

I love what she shares in this interview.

Our own family spends one day a week outdoors together, most often on Sunday, but I know this doesn't work for everyone. Some people go to religious services, or have conflicting family and work schedules. Or maybe spouses/partners who don't share the same love for nature hikes. A homeschool hiking group could help families incorporate hiking into their weekly routine. I love it!

Louise has young children and shares some great tips in this interview about hiking with babies and toddlers.

Let's get started.

1. Tell us the story of how your weekly homeschool hiking group started?

I decided to start a weekly hiking group specifically because our family could not get out hiking every weekend like I wanted. I also wanted to provide my children an opportunity to explore with their homeschooling friends...thus the birth of the group.

2. Is it hard to set aside one day from your homeschool routine for this?

Nope. And there are two reasons for that.

First, outdoor education is a priority for us and in conjunction with that, Friday has been put aside as our free day since we started. So, we made it our hiking day. We are flexible though - life happens, bad weather happens - so we postpone when we have to.

3. How did you find other interested families?

I have a pod of families that we hang with for individual play dates, field trips, holiday parties and mini school units (we get together and do a science experiments, etc.)

When I pitched it, I emailed them that I was really wanting to get more hiking done with my kids. I scheduled a bunch of easy to moderate local hikes (that I was familiar with) and told folks this is what I am doing - I will be there at 10 am. Come play if you want to. Folks who were interested just showed up (smile).

4. What is your average group size and age of kids?

This varied at every hike, but usually we had about 10 kids ranging in age from infant (our packers) to our oldest who was 9. Of course we had hikes where everybody showed up and that was close to 20 kids and others where only 5 kids showed up.

5. Do you have any "educational" goals in mind or is it "let's just go hiking"? Ie: Are you hoping the kids or yourself will learn certain things?

I do not plan any educational goals for the hikes BUT the educational opportunities do just fall in your lap. Most of these hikes are familiar to at least one person in the group. This works well as then that person is able to point out special "educational opportunities."

Many times our hiking explorations are inspired by a book. One hike we had just read Around One Log: Chipmunks, Spiders, and Creepy Insiders. So the kids wanted to spend time turning over rotten logs. What they discovered - tons of red backed salamanders, worms, beetles and other tiny creatures - led to many more library trips and several lap books.

We have hiked one of our family's personal favorite locations so many times that they boys know many of the critter "hot spots". Now when we bring friends along the boys lead the expedition often teaching friends where to find cool critters and what they have learned in their studies about the critters.

That being said, I do have physical goals for the younger two. My older two boys have developed their "hiking endurance" over the years. My little two are working on that. So I do have goals in that sense.

My goal for my four year old is for him to walk the hike on his own, in other words, me not carrying him. This means taking several breaks and bringing LOTS of snacks.

I know it sounds crazy but I have goals for the baby too. He is seventeen months old. He is now used to being in the pack and does not mind it. However, this last year (yes I mean this last year as he has been walking since he was 7 months old) I have worked diligently with him on building his endurance and hiking skills.

I usually let him "hike" right when we start off, during the period of his highest energy level. My goals for him include not only building his walking ability but his ability to walk along with a group and to stay on the trails. It is never too young to start is my philosophy. He loves it and gets the "I feel like a big kid" stride going. It is so cute.

Then when he starts to get tired he welcomes the break of getting in the pack and more often than not naps the rest of the hike. This avoids the cranky baby in the backpack scenario.

6. How do you determine where and how long to hike?

We only hike where at least one person in the group has already hiked. We do this so that the person who has hiked there before can give us a detailed description of what to expect in terms of foot wear, time, difficulty level, and trail directions.

The hiking group consists of moms and their many kids, all different ability levels (moms and kids alike). Knowing what’s ahead makes life easier to plan, especially for those of us with infants. We pick local, nobody wants to spend tons of money on gas so we stay within 30-45 minutes of our community.

Keeping the hikes local also makes it easier for families to try the hike again later, maybe with dad too. Several of the hikes are very close to the homes of folks in the group. Often that person opens up their home for an after-hike lunch, bathroom breaks and downtime.

Our hikes vary in length of time. Really it depends on how many "discoveries" we make, how many snack times we need and how many breaks we need for little legs. I tell the moms to expect at least two hours, bring lots of snacks and in some cases we have brought lunches and picnicked on the trail.

As far as mileage goes, we have done trails that are as short as 1/4 mile, all the way up to some two mile loops. Sometimes the shortest trails have taken us the longest time because of all the exploration.

7. What do the kids love best about it? What about the parents?

Here’s what one kid and two moms had to say:

Mud...and seeing my friends.

I like meeting/making new friends, being outdoors, challenging myself to try new things (think salamanders here). And, I'm discovering new places nearby that will be great to know about for family outings and homeschool adventures in the future.

I really like to visit the beautiful trails that we have so close to home. It is nice to get together with other families to learn about nature and to just spend time enjoying each other's company. My boys love to explore with the other children as well.

8. What do you do about winter and rainy days?

Rainy days we re-schedule. Winter is awesome hiking. We only hike if the temperature is at least 20 degrees. Kids dress warmly.

We BRING SLEDS. Little legs get worn out way faster with snow pants and snow to work through. Sleds give much needed breaks for littles and tons of fun for the bigs. They love sliding down hills and taking turns pulling each other. Sleds take the bite out of the difficulty of winter hiking.

9. What is the most challenging part of organizing something like this? What is the most rewarding aspect?

Honestly, last fall and even this winter organizing the hikes was a breeze. We picked a hike. We went. The weather was great. The advent of spring has brought life interruptions galore. So the challenge has been to get back into our hiking rhythm.

10. Anything else you want to share?

Having a homeschool hiking group has been a lot of fun. My kids have benefited and I have loved sharing some of my favorite spots with some great women. I know the thought of going out sans dad in the woods with little kids can be daunting, especially when you have older kids who want to run ahead and little ones who want to run the other way or just want to lay in the trail and cry that they are too tired to go on. Having more hands on deck makes the load lighter.

Some moms stay with the littles, some hike ahead with the bigs. All bases covered. We support each other and encourage one another. Many of the kids in the group have met challenges this year while hiking - hitting the “I’m too tired point” but somehow finding the strength to go on. This is amazing to see in a four year old!

I have seen kids who have never caught a frog or cradled a salamander, who were afraid to climb a tree or walk across a fallen log. I have seen them conquer these challenges with their own cheering squad. I have seen bigs come along side littles who are crying and tired of the hike, take a hand and help them on.

There’s something to this hiking in the woods, the challenge of the trail and the beauty of the fresh air that brings out the best in all of us.

~~~

What a great way to end! And I couldn't agree more. This last part was beautiful and I think really illustrates what being in the outdoors together offers us - beauty, hands-on learning, relationship and character building.

This kind of integrated living gets me really excited.

Thank you so much Louise for taking the time to answer these questions (and for supplying the photos!). I think there's a lot of great inspiration and practical ideas in here for families wanting to start their own homeschool hiking groups.

Any questions for Louise? Or a similar experience to share about group hiking?

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