Saturday, April 25, 2015

50 States Trip #2: Mid-Atlantic States

Wanna make your minivan smell unique? Drive around with your family of 6 for a week or so visiting whichever states are within your reach in the time allotted. Our family has achieved this goal and then some. The minivan will never be the same.

We recently knocked off 5 more states and Washington, D.C. from our 50 states goal. We hit Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. We also spent another night in North Carolina for the sake of logistics.

Our goal is to see everything, everywhere so that we never have to return to that place again.

No, wait. That's not our goal at all.

Our actual goal is to see a little bit of everything and encourage our kids to see traveling as one big adventure.

And I think we're doing o.k. on that one.

In North Carolina, we visited the Duke University campus and relived a bit of our younger days (before children) when Jay and I lived in Durham. It happened to be the day that Duke was playing for the NCAAchampionship so everyone we saw was wearing blue and staring at us because we weren't. And also because we have a lot of loud children.

Boys and Duke Chapel
We went to Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown Settlement in Virginia (not on the same day) and I have to say that Jamestown won hands down for me. Not only do they have a living history museum (replica ships that brought over the first permanent settlers from England, a Powhatan village, and a recreated fort), but their indoor museum was also really well done.
Learning from an original Jamestown settler (hee-hee, 'cause he's really old)
Harry, our four-year-old, has been telling every person who asks about our trip that "all the Native Amewicans died and that made me cwy." He gleaned this information from an interactive map that showed the decrease in Powhatan settlements as the English settlements increased. You may not see that as a positive, but I am a history dork and I do. And kids could be outside and they had a musket demonstration that was a really big hit with our bloodthirsty crowd.
Jamestown Musket Demonstration
Williamsburg would probably be more fun if you stayed longer and participated in all of the historical reenactment activities (they have a trial and a mob that starts the revolution, for instance), but with kids ranging in age from 2 to 10 it was not that great for us. It was, however, predominantly outside and involved running, which we always appreciate.
The Governor's Palace in Colonial Williamsburg, VA
In Maryland we hung out in the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, ate some delicious crab cakes at Mo's, and toured Fort McHenry. McHenry's claim to fame is that it was the site of the flag that Francis Scott Key was looking for when he penned the eventual national anthem. Although we were all taught Betsy Ross's name for sewing the first American flag during the American Revolution, it was really the War of 1812 and Key's era that saw the flag as we think of it as a symbol of the United States.
Baltimore Lighthouse at Inner Harbor
The short film at the fort was well done and made me feel pretty darn patriotic. Although to be honest, it is not all that difficult to make me feel patriotic. I learned that Key's grandson was actually held as a prisoner in Fort McHenry during the Civil War for criticizing Lincoln's use of force in eradicating slavery from the southern states. And, of course, I was reminded yet again that I'm glad I do not live 200 years ago. Or 100. Or even 50. It was fairly cold and miserable and windy, but all the people we encountered in Maryland were incredibly nice. And if I, a native Southerner, noticed polite behavior toward others, it was above average at the least.
Cannons at the ready at Fort McHenry
We kept our tour of Pennsylvania to Philadelphia just so that we could see the former capital of the United States and let our kids see that broken bell. The cold and rain (and occasional sleet) followed us into Philly so our cheesesteaks wound up being needed for warmth and not just delicious sustenance. The last time we were in the City of Brotherly Love it was 95 degrees and I had to take a baby to the emergency room, so this was still better than that.
The Liberty Bell, up close and personal
We toured Independence Hall and saw original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution. We were also unfortunately asked to leave by the grumpiest park ranger I have ever met. He was arrogant and rude and proudly told our group that he had his doctorate, which we later learned was in Sociology, not History. Our 2-year-old was rather loudly talking during the presentation and unfortunately there is no other way but the guided tour to see Independence Hall. It was embarrassing and not cool. Oh, well. I am perfectly capable of explaining what happened in those rooms to the kids and we watched National Treasure so we would feel happy about Philadelphia and Independence Hall again.
Independence Hall before we got kicked out
And then there was Delaware. When we got this idea to see all the states we joked about something that we could do in every one--take a picture of a mascot of some sort or drink a local beer in every state or something like that. We realized we just didn't know what to expect in each one so we haven't really been doing any of that. I do wish we had tried to take a picture of each state's welcome sign. Georgia's says "We're glad Georgia's On Your Mind," which references a great song, but is also weirdly obvious. Virginia's says "Open for Business" which feels vaguely desperate, as though you need to be reminded that it's still there. Maryland's has every color of their awesomely busy flag and an arched shape and so many words I'm not sure what it said.

But Delaware. Delaware's is plain blue with white letters and says "Welcome to Delaware." That's it. No motto or pithy saying. No colors or flag. It doesn't even say "The First State," even though Delaware was the first to ratify the Constitution. Delaware is not flashy. It is absolutely lovely in parts and incredibly industrial in parts and practical everywhere in between. When researching the state I kept running into the DuPont name--the famous chemical company started in Delaware as a black powder manufacturer when E.I. du Pont de Nemour immigrated to the U.S from France.
Water Power of the Brandywine River--used to make explosives by the DuPont Company
So we went to see the Hagley Museum--a former home and explosives plant for the DuPont company. It was industrialization (company village, large scale nuts and bolts and gears, industry titans) and peaceful countryside all at once. The plant was along a beautiful river with the family mansions high above overlooking the valley and out of site of the homes of their workers and their families. They have a small explosive demonstration down by the river and we got to explore outside some more. The museum staff were incredibly gracious and proud of their state and we really enjoyed visiting. We also went by the University of Delaware and Jay bought a Blue Hen Snuggie for his boss because one grown man giving another grown man a Snuggie is only made funnier by the Fightin' Blue Hen on it.
Small Boy Enjoys the Former Home and Gardens of Rich People
After Delaware we drove west to West Virginia with the plan of coming back through Washington, D.C. on the weekend when hotels are cheaper. This meant we drove across Maryland and into West Virginia. The drive itself was part of the activity. Flat lowlands give way to rolling hills covered in mist and mountains hidden in the clouds. When West Virginia separated from Virginia there was debate about how much of Virginia to cut off. Having driven through that area I can see why.
Where the Shenandoah River Meets the Potomac at Harper's Ferry, WV
The busy cities of eastern Virginia look nothing like the hills and valleys of the west. In this one shot above you are within minutes of Maryland and Virginia even though I'm standing in West Virginia. What West Virginia has to offer is a lot of natural beauty and some pretty fun outdoor activities that our youngest kids are just too young for. So we stuck to driving around and visiting Harper's Ferry, site of John Brown's ill-fated raid and so many changes-of-hand during the Civil War that the industry located there was just abandoned after the war due to damage.
Clearly we pushed the little guy hard--he woke up in time for fudge
While on this exploration from Maryland to West Virginia we stopped in Sharpsburg and saw the Antietam Battlefield, site of the bloodiest day in American history. My sons, excited to be out of the car, ran up to a photograph on display and cut in front of an older man wearing an Orioles cap. I pulled them back and told them to apologize and the gentleman said, "No, no, let them up front. We want little ones to be excited about learning their history." I could have hugged him and Maryland continued to impress me with the kindness of its citizens. Good job, Maryland.
Boy Inspects Civil War Cannon
Our last stop on this trip was to Washington, D.C. Quite unintentionally we managed to be in D.C. during peak cherry blossom bloom at the end of the Cherry Blossom Festival. Which means that we unintentionally saw a parade. And were unintentionally near a public suicide (although we were in a museum and the kids never knew about it). There were a lot of people, to say the least.
Cherry Blossoms and Washington Monument
Jay and I have been to D.C. several times as tourists so we stuck to the biggies for the kids this time. We saw the American History, Natural History, and Air and Space Museums (all part of the Smithsonian complex) and walked all over the Mall. We visited the Washington, Lincoln, and new(ish) Martin Luther King, Jr. memorials and walked around the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms. Our weather was spectacular and our tired kids were troopers throughout the whole thing.
Our View of Lincoln
Our final day we spent driving back to Atlanta from Washington, D.C. I was worried about an entire day in the car, but we honestly had a pretty good time and the kids were so exhausted from all the D.C. walking that I think they were glad to be sitting down. Jay and I were, too, until we had to get up in Atlanta and nearly died. And, of course, we got to see the Peach Butt in Gaffney, South Carolina. House of Cards may have made it famous, but that thing's been mooning us for years. Here's to you, Peach Butt.
The Pride of Gaffney, a giant Peach Water Tower
We are now up to 11 states and D.C. crossed off our list and Jay is making hotel reservations for our next adventure as I type. Hooray for family adventure and happy travels to all.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

So I Started Homeschooling My Kids (Sort of)

Of all the things I've ever written about on this blog, I am most afraid of what people will think of me about this one. And that includes the time I wrote about flashing everyone at my daughter's ballet class while breastfeeding and the time a bee stung me on the ass.

I'm afraid you'll think I've been drawn to the dark side of a crazy cult that has convinced me that my children might "catch sin" at the public school. (Not true, they are exposed to child-level sin at home. See how I said ass?)

I'm afraid you'll imagine me wearing prairie dresses and sporting that spectacular hairstyle with the '80s bangs pouf up front and crazy long waves to my waist. (Also not true-I currently have a raisin-colored pixie cut and am wearing sweat pants. Although that does make me seem crazy in a different way..,)

I'm afraid my decision will be interpreted as my giving up on the public school system in some way-- that by choosing a different option, I'm saying that I don't think my local schools (which have some of the highest test scores in the nation) are good enough for my children. This isn't true, either. I loved being a public school teacher and had I gone back to teaching this year, my children would be enrolled in the one down the street.

I'm afraid that you will think that I am irretrievably damaging my children because they will not have field day or eat in a school cafeteria or some other aspect I haven't thought of yet. And I'm very afraid that you might be right about that one.

Why am I doing this, you ask? And what does "sort of" mean?

"Sort of" means that my kids attend a school called a "non-traditional education center." They attend classes two days a week in four core subjects--History, English/Language Arts, Science, and Math. There are no specials (P.E., music, art) and we are expected to provide our children with opportunities to do those things ourselves.

They each have three different teachers--one for math, one for science, and one for both history and language arts. They complete their tests, present projects, conduct experiments, and learn new material while at school. At home they work on projects, papers, and all practice work. I grade all of their homework for accuracy and their teachers check it for completion. Their test and project scores then become the bulk of their grades.

So, sort of. Not a regular public or private school, but not exactly completely homeschooling either. In homeschooling world this option is called a "hybrid" program and I had never heard of it until a good friend of mine began this option a few years ago.

But, why? This is a little bit harder to explain.

I have had a dream for as long as I can remember to one day travel extensively with whatever family I had. In my dream, we would leave our lives for a year while I taught the children through an online program or something and we would just travel around the world as we saw fit. At the end of this imaginary year, my children would re-enroll in public school and I would resume my job as a teacher.

Actual life hasn't exactly gone that way. I had a couple more children than the average (by choice, on purpose, that close together, thank you for asking). I decided to quit teaching for a few years while my children are little and our childcare costs are prohibitively high. Thus, our household has four kids, one income, and not enough money to pick up and leave any time in the near future.

In this last year, as we got set to move, we had to make a decision about what to do with our kids' schooling for this semester. We didn't know if we'd still be living in the same school district or not, let alone the zoning area for the school they were attending. Given all the options, Jay and I decided to enroll them in this hybrid option for the rest of this year. They wouldn't have to switch schools mid-semester if we moved school districts and our family would get to experiment with a different kind of schooling.

With only these few months behind us, it has been incredibly fun. We've gone on field trips to see a Monet while one kid was studying Impressionism (art and music history are included, just not actually making art).

Boy Contemplates Impressionist
We climbed the Etowah Indian Mounds during a unit on early Native Americans. We are headed to the Georgia Aquarium in May as a review of marine biology. And we'll be stomping through shallow ponds (with a guide) at the Chattahoochee Nature Center this week.

Etowah Indian Mounds--Cartersville, GA
I've gotten to see how our children learn and what their strengths and weaknesses are. I've enjoyed more leisurely mornings (we begin school at 8:30 instead of catching the bus at 7). I love that they're excited about what they're learning because there isn't any wasted time, really. And I certainly enjoy that this schedule allows us to travel more and explore our country and its history.

Our view of the Lincoln Memorial last week
But I don't know if I'm doing the right thing. Maybe they need to learn something at traditional school that I'm not thinking of. I didn't particularly get a lot out of extra-curriculars (sports, clubs, saying the pledge every morning), but a lot of other people did. What if I'm denying them something they'd love? When I panic the most I remind myself that I actually have a Master's Degree in Education and am perfectly qualified to determine what they need to know and how well they know it. Also, I breathe into a bag.

But what if they're weird? What if they go back to school and people make fun of them? What if everyone else already has friends and they don't fit in anywhere? What if they never go back to school and they are launched into college as totally sheltered dorks?

And, at the base of my fear, is that I really chose this because it seemed fun. And it IS fun. Super fun. We're having a great time. But is that allowed? Are we allowed to make parenting decisions based purely on life enjoyment? Or should I be making MORE decisions based on life enjoyment?

FUN is not what our Puritan ancestors expected of us. FUN is not what most people use to describe their school experience. I don't know what I'm doing. I pray a lot. I ask the kids a lot of questions about what they like and don't like. I obsessively look up the common core standards for their grades to make sure I know what they're expected to know in public school.

But mostly I'm taking one day at a time and attempting to accept that "for the fun of it" might be an o.k. reason to do something I never really thought I'd be crazy enough to try.