Sunday, February 27, 2011

We're moving! Again! And more cute baby pictures!

It's official! Finally. We are moving into our own house on Saturday. Yes, I know, we moved less than a year ago. And less than a year before that. And the year before that. And the year before that. And the year before that. It's not that we love to move--most of those were completely necessary moves that are a normal part of graduate school and new-professorhood. The move we made last summer to our current apartment was completely voluntary but we were very excited about it. We'd spent a year prowling the neighborhood and trolling Craigslist for a rental that could be made accessible for Joseph. We wanted, if possible, a home all on one floor and, most definitely, an outside door low enough and with enough surrounding space to add a ramp. You would not believe how much space a ramp takes up. It's incredible. So last May when we found this apartment that was all one floor with only a few steps from the back door to a spacious patio and was even less rent we were thrilled. The landlord's agent who showed the apartment to us assured us that a ramp would be no problem. We moved in after our big road trip last summer and finally got around to building the ramp in September.

The ramp was actually a pretty fun DIY project for Eric and me. We studied lots of ramp and deck plans, Eric did all the math to come up with the design and we had at it. Just the two of us built it over two weekends and the end result was a nice, solid ramp that even looked nice. But far more wonderful than the satisfaction of building something together was seeing Joseph use the ramp. He was, then, almost six years old and for the the first time in his life could get in and out of his own house independently. We cried watching him finally able to follow his 18-month old brother in and out. It was incredible for him and for our whole family. I'm crying now remembering it, if you want to know the truth.

Just a couple of days after finishing the ramp, and on Margaret's birthday, our landlord ordered us to remove it immediately. It would take pages and pages to relate the entire story of our fall from that point but it was ugly. The ramp, as it was, had to be torn down though we do, of course, have a legal right to accessible housing. We explored lots and lots of options for recourse and solutions but over the course of the fall it became clear that for accessibility reasons, and other reasons that I won't enumerate here, we had to move on from this apartment. We were subjected to unreasonable demands on all sorts of unrelated issues, harassing encounters that frightened our children, and--I don't think coincidentally--stolen property. We briefly considered moving quickly into some sort of emergency housing but then decided that the situation wasn't that dire. What we did do, instead, was figure out how we could buy a house.

The nice thing about having our own house (other than not having a completely unhinged landlord) is that we can modify it any way we like for accessibility. But you'd be surprised how many houses cannot be made accessible no matter how much you own it. If we lived in the suburbs the housing stock would be a bit more amenable to ramping but one of our many reasons for living in the city is because the outdoor space is all accessible. Yards and wheelchairs are not a great combination. Our current neighborhood is also one of the most affordable places to live in North Jersey. Eric's commute is definitely shorter than average among his colleagues. But the need for "rampability" and a bathroom with at least the potential for accessibility really limited our options. We also had a strong preference for having all--or at least most--of our living space on one level. We didn't want to create a situation where everyone except Joseph had a bedroom upstairs. In the city where houses are built "up" more than "out", this pretty much ruled out all single-family homes. Two-family homes tend to have bigger floors.
A two-family home also, of course, greatly increases buying power because of rental income and in our neighborhood they tend to be the norm and don't cost any more than the available single family homes.

So once we established our price range and found a realtor we looked at the two dozen or so two- and three-family homes on the market. We ruled out several of them as "unrampable" right off the bat. Several more were fake short sales a common--and very frustrating--situation these days where a home owner in trouble is "listing their home for sale" to buy time with the bank but mysteriously becomes unreachable by phone if you want to actually view the property. In the end we got inside about a dozen homes and seriously considered three of them. Our first choice turned out, on a second look, to be more of a fixer-upper than we wanted, our second choice sold while we were thinking about the first one. So we ended up with our third choice home. In retrospect, as often happens, this one now seems like it should have been the obvious first choice all along and we are quite excited about it. We decided that trying to move quickly would not allow us to search for the "perfect house" but we are confident this house will serve us really well for long enough to make buying it a sensible move.

Getting a mortgage these days is a nightmare. The banks are skittish and picky but everything was finally settled last week and we are closing this Friday, moving in on Saturday. We are all very, very excited to be moving into our own place and into a place that is permanent. I'm looking forward to indulging my furniture making hobby once again (first up--adjusting the floor to ceiling bookshelves for the new dining room). Margaret is looking forward to having an entire finished basement to herself for nap time. Joseph is looking forward to the ramp. Eric is excited about having a home office in the attic--two whole floors away from the chaos that always interferes with his work on days he'd rather not go into campus. There's a lot of excitement all around.

I'll post a photo tour as soon as I can. Until then, I better get packing!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Classical Unschooling

A few people asked, after my last post, to hear more about classical education and/or/with unschooling. I can't say that I'm an expert on either approach, or at anything at all related to homeschooling. I've been reading on the subject for almost ten years but no amount of reading can prepare you to actually educate real children in the midst of a busy home and we are only just beginning that stage of things.

There are a handful of well-defined home education "philosophies" out there for parents who are putting together their own curriculum and there are lots of more "curriculum-in-a-box" providers as well. But, in my experience, most families use a combination of two (or more) approaches and find that things evolve over time as the children grow. I don't want my thoughts on unschooling or classical education to come to define either of those approaches because if you know another family approaching home education this way, it will probably look completely different. This is one of those areas where I am totally comfortable being a relativist.

An extreme definition of "unschooling," in my mind, is: letting the kids do whatever they want with regard to their definition. I have never actually heard of any family that actually does that, for the record. It's not even legal in a lot of states. I find that an occasional dose of "unschooling" inspiration is a guard against feeling discouraged and defeated. In the midst of a large family and a busy life, there are definitely times when formal school does not happen. At all. During a time of crisis this could go on for weeks. I personally don't think that this is harmful for children and it is encouraging to know that there are whole populations of people, and even education experts who think this is the best and only way to educate children. I have definitely heard of and met some pretty darn impressive kids who came from "unschooling" families so it seems to work, in some form, for some people.

In the materials I've read on "unschooling," several elements attract me. First, it is a very "child-centered" approach. Unschoolers usually see children as inherently intelligent, thoughtful, creative, and self-motivated and believe that, left to their own devices, they will educate themselves (including learning to read) just fine. I also like that children have, in theory, limitless time to thoroughly explore what interests them. Eric and I homeschool, in part, as a reaction against shortcomings in our own education. We both would have preferred more time to really dig into the things that interested us rather than stick to the classroom agenda.

All that said, we don't ever see ourselves embracing this approach fully. For one thing, while all of our children seem pretty intelligent, they definitely differ in the personal initiative area. For another thing, as bad as I am about sticking to a routine, I do know that my children thrive better when we have a routine. And, while Eric and I would have loved more freedom in our education, we also wish that we had been introduced to more of the riches of literature and philosophy and world culture than we were.

Enter classical education.

Classical education relies on the "trivium" concept: children move progressively through three stages of learning first absorbing facts (the grammar stage), then learning to argue (the logic stage), and finally learning to fully express themselves (the rhetoric stage). Home educators who use a classical approach typically have a rich and rigorous program of study with a huge emphasis on the study of history. I was initially turned off by some materials I read on classical education because it seemed to lack respect for the innate creativity and imagination of the child, forcing them to think and learn a certain way. It seemed to view children as empty vessels for the parents to cram with a certain number of facts before it was time to ship them off to an Ivy League school at age 16.

I've since come to see that this is a rather extreme view of the classical approach and just as I don't know any families who truly always let their children do whatever they want, I also don't know any families who approach classical education in that way. And based on my very limited observation of children, the trivium pattern seems to be a sensible one. Also, classical education just sounds fun to me. And that is no small thing when I have to live with and supervise whatever it is we are doing for education around here.

So I tend to say that we are "classical unschoolers" because the materials we use are definitely drawn from classical sources. We plan to teach the children Latin and we will probably use history as a "spine" for most other subjects. But we also think children needs lots and lots of free time to explore and read on their own. Formal lessons are short, we're okay taking days off when we all need a break or a neat opportunity arises or if we are moving for the second time in less than a year and have a newborn in the house (just to pull one example out of thin air).

So there's a nutshell description of our approach and I will try to illustrate it a bit more in the coming months. Feel free to ask more questions about how we got here, what we do, or what we're planning for the future.

The pictures for today's post are courtesy, once again, of Robyn. We get together for science and music activities once a week and last week talked about volcanoes. The kids all loved it but Robyn and I love how unimpressed they look in the pictures. Very funny. The more impressive yeast+hydrogen peroxide combination failed us (turns out that H2O2 expires--good to know!) so we had to resort of baking soda and vinegar. Oh, and Joseph has a loose tooth!

Thursday, February 10, 2011


We are still home schooling with no plans to change that at this point. Our year has gone pretty well although it's been in fits and starts. I don't really mind that too much for kids this young. Eric and I have both endlessly researched various approaches to home education and we feel drawn pretty strongly towards a classical approach in terms of what the kids will study. But we also find that a lot of what "unschoolers" say really resonates with us--especially for young children. Five and six-year-olds, it turns out, will pretty readily gobble up whatever they can get their hands on in a pretty self-motivated way and so much learning is going on just through living a rich life on a daily basis. While we definitely have set math and reading work we do for Joseph, I tend not to fret too much if he spends several days in a row absorbed in various books and doesn't crack open his math.

We gave a lot of thought to "grade level" at the start of this year. In lots of states Joseph would be in kindergarten this year and in other states he would be in first grade. We decided to err on the side of not rushing things so we've called him a kindergartner this year though he is definitely doing first or second grade work in some areas. The nice thing about homeschooling is that you can do different grade levels for different subjects. Joseph's abilities don't tend to match his desires, however. He is not eager about formal schooling even though he can easily complete his work when I make him do it. That's another reason I opted to err on the young side with regard to grade level. He likes to be really confident with a skill before diving in and I thought it best for him to feel good about his reading and writing ability before starting in on a classical first grade program.

Margaret has always come along for the ride with regard to school and this year I got her a preschool workbook so she'd have something fun to do while I worked with Joseph. She also demanded reading lessons. I was hesitant to start because Joseph got really frustrated as a four-year old with reading. But Margaret took to it pretty quickly and is blasting through the curriculum. She also outgrew her preschool workbook and the kindergarten one I got her as a sequel is also much too easy for her. Her mind isn't quite the information sponge Joseph's seems to be but she has a lot of initiative and is doing well with reading and writing. I think we'll end up calling Margaret a kindergartner next year and the two kids will do a lot of the more "humanities" type work together as they progress through their education.

We've had a really fun addition to our home education recently. My friend Robyn who lives in Brooklyn decided to pull her kindergartner out of school and finish up the year at home just before Christmas. We've been getting together once a week ever since to do short activities together--mostly science-type stuff, although I tried out some music with the kids last week--and for some playtime for the kids (and, honestly, for Robyn and I!). Joseph and Andrew have always been great friends and it's fun for Joseph to have a friend over every week. William is a huge fan of Robyn's younger son, Isaac (they both share a deep passion for trains) and Margaret is a huge fan of Robyn herself. So it's a great part of the week for everyone and I secretly hope that Robyn home schools her kids for the next twelve years so we can continue the play dates ;)

The pictures in today's post are courtesy of Robyn. I think Gregory is one week old--Robyn has a real thing for capturing crying babies. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Gregory Augustine

I'll tell you what the biggest obstacle to my writing more on this blog is: pictures. I never think to bring my camera anywhere. If I do think to bring it, I don't think to use it. If I think to use it the pictures are usually terrible. And then I have to coordinate myself enough to upload the terrible pictures and choose a few to publish. It shouldn't be such an obstacle, but it is. I'm sure someone out there understands. Eric is of the opinion that most of you, dear readers, would love to have more updates about our family, pictures or no pictures. So I'm really going to try and post more even if I can't illustrate what I'm saying.

As for now--I do have a few decidedly mediocre shots of our newest addition. This is one seriously sweet baby and if that doesn't come through in the pictures, well, you'll just have to take my word for it.

Gregory came into the world on January 13th at about 5:15 in the morning. He was almost our smallest baby at 7 pounds, 4 ounces. (And if you read this just for the stats and don't like long birth stories you can skip ahead now to the last couple paragraphs). I had initially planned on this one being born at home as Margaret and William were. Honestly, after my 45 minutes of labor with William we didn't think trying to get to a hospital was even a very safe decision. I would rather have Eric deliver my baby and know that a professional is on the way than deliver on the freeway in January. We had a few hurdles, however. First, a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean) at home is not really allowed in New Jersey. We found a midwife who was willing to help us given my history of very fast labor and we saw her for awhile. But then around 30 weeks we found that I had a low blood platelet count. That is a fairly common "complication" of pregnancy and doesn't really cause any problems--unless you bleed to death during birth. In a modern hospital that isn't too much of a risk but my home birth midwife thought I was no longer a good candidate for home birth.

We did a little research into local hospitals and found that the closest hospital actually had a group of midwives practicing. I called them up and immediately liked the woman who ran the clinic. She took me on as one of her private patients and we took it from there. Honestly, I liked the new midwife more, she and the hospital were more conveniently located, and her services (unlike the home birth) are covered by insurance.

I was a little apprehensive about birthing in a hospital. I (obviously) prefer natural childbirth and low intervention with regard to both mother and baby. Many, many of my friends have had horrible experiences of hospital birth and being a VBAC really ups your risk for unnecessary procedures and interventions.

There'd been lots of dickering about my actual due date for most of my pregnancy but we finally settled on January 25th. Two of my previous three babies were early so I expected to go early again. I wanted to give birth before Eric's semester started on January 18th and the string of snowstorms we had in early January had me on edge. The evening after one of the bigger storms I was feverishly doing house-buying paperwork at my desk when I got up for a snack and suddenly realized that I'd been having pretty regular contractions. I sat down to time things a bit and realized they were seven minutes apart. Seven minutes is a long time for most people but I'd gone from seven minutes apart to a baby in less than an hour before and didn't want to take any risks. We called our babysitter, called my midwife and took off for the hospital. We arrived to an almost silent labor and delivery ward in the middle of the night and settled in. My labor progressed steadily but (for me) very slowly. I refused to go to sleep because once I'd arrived at the hospital I didn't want to prolong things. But I ended up laboring for seven hours anyway. Most of it was very manageable and I stood around chatting with Eric and the midwife. By early morning I was exhausted and extremely hungry but Gregory was born fairly easily in the early morning. I couldn't have asked for a better setting for a hospital. The room was quiet and dimly lit and only Eric and my midwife were there. Even the nurse only showed up in the last moments and she was a quiet, calm presence who took great care of me immediately after birth as well.

Gregory was perfectly healthy right off the bat and the two of us settled in for our hospital stay. I had initially thought I would stay at the hospital for the full time allotted (48 hours) to maximize my rest. I realized after the first night that there is no such thing as a good night's sleep in a hospital where they feel the need to come in hourly to check someone's blood pressure. I had to argue with a few people for an early discharge but I was able to go home late in the afternoon on the second day.

Despite my ardent love for birthing at home, I have to say that my experience with a normal hospital birth was pretty positive. If we are blessed with another baby I would definitely be inclined to go back to the same hospital midwife.

Gregory has been a wonderful addition to our family. He is a very easygoing baby. The kids just adore him. Margaret has been a huge help holding him for me for short intervals and always ready to grab a clean diaper or change of clothes or make sure he has enough blankets. William is constantly trying to cover the baby in kisses--more kisses than any newborn can reasonably handle, in fact. He is mostly okay with not being the baby anymore though we have a few kinks to iron out in that department. I have noticed that since Gregory was born William seems to be attaching himself more to Joseph which is good for both of them.

I have had the easiest recovery from childbirth yet. I love having babies but I do not love being pregnant and it is very wonderful to be able to move quickly, bend over, hold my kids close, and generally have enough energy to get through the day again. My house is starting to get clean, dinner has gotten on the table, and I'm not even too worried about packing up the house in a couple weeks. Life is very good!

More soon on house developments. We are planning to close on a house in a few weeks and though there is no very great risk of things falling through, I'd rather save the details at least until we have the closing scheduled.