Tuesday, August 25, 2015

First Day of School!

Yesterday was our first day of school!  As far as there are grades in homeschool, Sierra is starting 6th grade, Sedona is starting 3rd grade and we're playing it by ear for Secora (doing a little bit of Kindergarten work because she insists on it, but she's not really Kindergarten age yet)
We did a mix of regular work and fun stuff.  First up was painting everyone's nails to look like the ends of pencils.
After covering a little reading and history, we took a mid-morning break for our first tea time (well, lemonade time, it's hot out!) of the year
Then it was time to buckle down for some work.  Sierra's doing typing this year, so she took a pre-test
We're trying out Mango Languages for Spanish at the girls' insistence that Rosetta Stone is just too hard (I think it's just that learning new languages is difficult, but I'm willing to take their opinion into account when choosing programs).  While Sierra worked on her typing, Sedona took her first Mango Spanish lesson:
Then we took another break to play around with some ink and quills that we got over the summer.  I learned that cutting pen tips into quills is not a skill that comes naturally, but I finally got a "good enough" job done of it.  Sierra learned it was even more difficult for lefties to avoid smearing ink in the old days, so she gave writing with her right hand a try.
Secora waited patiently and then took a turn
Secora also insisted SHE is ready for school too.  We started the Kindergarten math book and she did just fine with recognizing 1, 2 or 3 on sight (our math program discourages counting) and "translating" numbers between fingers, tally sticks and objects.  She worked on patterns too.
The big girls also did their first physics lesson.  The science curriculum we use just put out elementary level physics and I wanted to go ahead and do it with Sierra, so they're both doing the same class, but I'm adding on some enrichment activities and tests for Sierra while Sedona is sticking with doing the class as it's written.

There was also plenty of time reviewing last year's math with Sedona, working on multiplying and adding numbers with exponents for Sierra, brushing up on identifying subject nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives and working on spelling.  I didn't quite realize how unstructured we'd gotten over the summer, it's back to the daily grind for now.  Each of the big girls only does about 3-4 hours of school work each day, but since I'm going back and forth teaching each of them, I'm teaching pretty much non-stop from 9a-4p and answering work emails "in the background" (while they work a practice problem or write a spelling sentence).  This is about the same routine we had last year and I suspect as Secora's ready to do more, Sierra will continue to get more independent, so this will probably be our school norm for several years.

Overall, looks like it's gonna be a great year and I think we're all ready to be in some semblance of a regular routine again!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

To The New Homeschool Parent

We are about to enter our 6th year of homeschooling.  As we start to venture into junior high, I've met several families who are just getting started on their homeschooling journey and are asking for advice.  Here are some of my top suggestions to the new homeschooling parent.

1) Plan
    You can get by just fine without a plan.  You can take the year day by day or week by week.  We did it for several years, it can work.  But as we've trended towards more organization, our days have been so much easier.  Now I sit down in the summer and make a rough plan of what each child should accomplish each week in each subject.  I don't get anymore detailed than that because life gets in the way, but I have my spreadsheet on the computer and I mark off each square as those lessons are accomplished.  It helps me see where we're on track and where we're a little behind.  It prevents me being all scattered and looking for worksheets on Monday morning and it prevents the kids from feeding off my stress.

2) But don't be a slave to the plan
    A plan is great, but only if it's flexible.  Doing "school at home" rather than homeschooling misses out on a lot of benefits of homeschooling.  It's okay if you get behind in a subject, there's time to catch up.  It's okay if you have the unexpected opportunity to take a week of vacation, there's time to catch up.  Don't pull your child away from a subject they are enthralled by because the schedule says it's time to move on to something else.  This is why you homeschool, so you can individualize their education.  Also, don't get married to the idea of a certain curriculum.  Be willing to admit it's not working for your child.  Even if it looked great when you ordered it, even if your friends love it, even if it was perfect for an older sibling.  Be willing to set it aside and try something different.  If money is an issue, try to find someone you can borrow from for a couple of weeks until you see if it's a good fit for you and your student.

3) Read everything you make your kids read
    Yes, this takes time, but homeschooling is not a "set it and forget it" endeavor.  You are your child's teacher and that means more than just following along in a guide.  I firmly believe you should be capable of sitting down and having an unscripted conversation about any book you've assigned your child.  More importantly, some of the standard reads are just plain awful.  If you are following a curriculum that assigns certain books, I can assure you not all of them are really worth reading.  Even if you like the curriculum overall, sometimes you need to make changes to individualize it for your family.  A certain Egyptian mythology book from Sierra's history curriculum last year stands out to me.  That was the most boring, dense book ever.  I couldn't get through it, so there's no way I expected my fifth grader to.  We dropped it and she learned a lot of her Egyptian mythology from the Rick Riordan Kane Chronicles books.  Not quite standard classroom fare, but we don't have a standard classroom.  Between those books (which I also read) and her text book readings, she more than got the idea and enjoyed learning too.

4) The one curriculum I regret not ordering from the beginning is All About Reading/All About Spelling
     I didn't think I needed reading curriculum in the beginning because Sierra was an early, strong reader.  For spelling we started out with an awful "list a week" program that just focused on rote memorization.  AAR/AAS would have been beneficial to her even as a strong reader and definitely would have helped her spelling.  Sedona is a different type of learner, but it's great for her too.  I can't say enough good things about the multi-sensory approach and the lessons taught in this program.  I've learned things with this program too.  Spelling words I'd just memorized throughout school make sense to me now. I understand why words are spelled the way they are and that helps me with sounding out new words, even in jargon-heavy scientific articles.

5) White boards and dry erase markers have been essential
     The one school supply we couldn't get by without are decent quality lap size white boards and lots of different colors of dry erase markers (Expo brand, anything else makes me want to throw it against the wall after a week of use).  Rather than using up tons of paper, I teach most lessons with these white boards.  I have several so if one child needs to keep an example to look at, I can use another one to move on with teaching someone else.  Different color markers are wonderful for grouping together or separating concepts so the kids can more quickly visualize what I'm explaining without being so overwhelmed about where everything is coming from.

6) Later Alligator
    Sedona saw a therapist for a while to help her with attention span and focus and on her advice, we instituted "later alligator".  It's just a simple clip art laminated and stuck to the wall near our school desk, but it's a free pass.  When one of the kids gets frustrated and their brain is "stuck" and unable to grasp a new concept, they can put down a later alligator.  This is a cue to me that they've really hit their limit.  They're not just having trouble remembering or not eager to do school, they are completely overwhelmed, "lost", and unable to take in new information on that topic right now.  We set it aside and do a different subject, then come back to it later after they've had a break.  In earlier days, I was recognizing their frustration as a "no new information is going to stick in that brain right now" point, but I was sending them off to do something totally different and then (due in part to my lack of organization) often not calling them back to finish the assignment that day.  Kids, being smart like they are, learn to manipulate that pretty quick.  Later Alligator puts them in charge of recognizing their own emotions/limitations without letting them get out of doing the work.  It's a good visual cue for both us to not only take a break, but to pick up that later alligator and get it back on the wall before the end of the school day too.

7) Keep records
    Even in places where you aren't legally required to keep detailed records, keep records.  I've gotten tired of having lots of pieces of paper every where, so I do this electronically now.  I scan completed worksheets and tests into the computer and from there it's saved on my computer, an external back-up and also a USB drive (multiple copies, multiple places....I do the same thing to back-up all of our curricula on e-books, they're too expensive to lose!) You never know when you might need to prove to someone that you are actually educating your children.  I figure it's one of those better safe than sorry things.  It also helps with planning for future children.  You may not remember what books the first child read in 3rd grade by the time the 2nd child gets there.  You do not need to follow the same plan for each child, but having a rough guideline is helpful for avoiding starting all over every time. Lastly, if you homeschool through high school, chances are you'll want to create a transcript for college and you need records for that.

8) Be brave
Sierra making a model of blood
    This one takes practice, but it's the most important of all.  Stop trying to make your homeschool kid's experience look the same as other kids' experiences.  It's okay to be different.  It's okay if they learn specific topics at a different age.  It's okay if other people in your life don't "get it".  Tune them out and help your child find their own path and the confidence to walk it.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Inflammatory Polyarthalgia

Image Source
I've been keeping the latest change around here under my hat hoping there would be definite answers on the horizon.  As medical things typically go for me though, that doesn't seem to be happening anytime soon.

Back in March, I experienced about a week and a half of joint pain in both my hands.  It started out in a few fingers and "spread" until every joint in both hands was affected.  I knew this was not a good sign and that it could point to either rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, plus I was living at Ronald McDonald House with Secora at the time, so I chose to chalk it up to stress and hope it would just go away.  That worked out really well for me, it disappeared and I breathed a sigh of relief.

In mid-April, it came right back.  So I did the only reasonable thing to do when faced with such a potentially serious symptom...took advil and ignored it, hoping it'd disappear again.  I was scheduled for a regular eye exam a few days later.  I have really terrible vision, so I see my eye doctor regularly and he knows me well and has pictures from my previous exams saved in my electronic chart.  I settled myself in the chair, he lined up his equipment and the first thing he said when he looked in my eyes was, "you need to go get tested for rheumatoid arthritis".  Well, crap.  He took pictures of the changes he was seeing and showed me old pictures to point out the difference.  So I got off the denial train and called my doctor on the way home.

My primary care doc listened to my symptoms and gave me a pity look, which is never good.  She ran some basic RA and lupus tests along with testing for gliadin (celiac) antibodies, though I'd already been thoroughly checked for celiac during my upper GI scope a few years ago.  She told me I really ought to see a rheumatologist regardless of results though because RA can be "seronegative".  I asked who she'd recommend within about a 2 hour drive and she very wholeheartedly recommended a newer doctor here in town.

Some waiting, paperwork and "can you put me on the 'if there's a cancellation' list?" later, I finally got in with the rheumatologist.  She ran more blood work looking for more specific markers and ruling out more possibilities, and scheduled me for a follow-up to discuss blood work and do a joint ultrasound.

And (of course, because it's me) the blood work all came back normal.  She explained that while that ruled out some stuff, it didn't rule out RA and she set up to ultrasound my hands.  That showed inflammation in the joints, but no joint damage.  And that's when I figured out we were just gonna be in limbo for a while.  She won't say it's RA since there's no damage as of yet, but she says it's possible it's very early RA or will "turn into" RA down the road.  The official diagnosis for now is inflammatory polyarthalgia (inflammatory joint pain in multiple joints, which really isn't much different from RA, that just means they don't know if it's forever yet).

She started me on daily plaquenil, an anti-malarial that is a DMARD (disease modifying anti-rheumatic drug), so I've been taking that for about 2 months now.  So the good news is I am WELL protected from malaria for the time being.  The bad news is I'm a little bit nauseous every night, but it's doable and I haven't had any other side effects.  Plaquenil takes a really long time to work, so I can't say too terribly much about it yet.  I'm most definitely less fatigued, which is interesting because I didn't know I had fatigue before.  My rheumy asked me if I was fatigued and all I could tell her was, "I have 3 young kids, of course I am".  Several weeks in on the plaquenil though, and I realized I could wake up in the morning without dragging myself out of bed and make it through the afternoon without longing for a nap.

The joint pain is the joint pain.  Some part of my hands has hurt all day every day for the last 4 months.  On the worst days it was every joint from wrists to fingertips and 6-8 advil over the day would dull it to a nagging ache.  On the best days, I wouldn't take any advil and I would have what felt like soreness with occasional sharp jabs.  One wrist that has given me trouble for years off and on hurts more often than not these days.  During the most recent bad flare-up I lost a lot of range of motion in it for a few days, but was pleasantly surprised to find out I could move it correctly again when symptoms subsided.  One shoulder has been nagging me a lot too...then I crashed my bike and fell on it, that didn't help.  It moves correctly, just not pain free.  My feet have, thankfully, been mostly okay.  Only very intermittent pain in a few joints. In the last 2 days, I've had entire hours where nothing hurts for the first time since this started, so I'm hoping the plaquenil is starting to do its job.

I don't yet know what the future holds.  For the time being, new blood work on a very regular basis and possible meds adjustments.  I'm hoping to avoid methotrexate for the time being.

My rheumy and primary care doc both say I can keep doing triathlons.  This is possible and there are several women with RA in my triathlon group, but it has required some adjustment.  A really hard workout will cause a flare in symptoms.  The next day or two I will have more pain and more fatigue.  With my last race, I needed naps and dealt with a lot more pain for several days after the race.  So basically, I need to take it slow and not push too hard.  My ideas of crawling my way up the age group rankings has to be shelved for now, and possibly forever.  My focus is just on keeping my body working and appreciating what I can do, time goals can't be put ahead of mobility preservation.  I've also changed my running shoes.  I've kept the zero drop that has been so kind to my knees, hips and back for so many years, but added on cushioning to protect my toe joints, so I've moved from five fingers to Altras.  Swimming held me back from triathlon for so long and was incredibly difficult and draining when I started.  Now, it's my rest day.  Everything moves better in the water and the hour or so after I get out of the pool is often the only pain free spot in my day.

Other adjustments have been pretty minor.  Some days Sierra braids the girls' hair for me if my fingers hurt too much.  Some days I prep ingredients for dinner throughout the day because I know it'll hurt too much to do it all at once.  I carry things differently a lot of times to avoid pain in small joints. I wear more sunscreen since the plaquenil makes you sun sensitive.  I snap, crackle, pop a lot more when I move.  I buy more advil.

I am extremely fortunate on many fronts.  I've found I appreciate what I CAN do much more, it's hard to justify skipping a workout when you know it may not be possible next week.  I'm fortunate to have an eye doctor that is very good at what he does and recognized the eye changes.  I'm fortunate to have a family practice doctor that is aware RA can be seronegative.  I'm fortunate to have a rheumatologist that meets every criteria on any "what you want from your rheumatologist" list.  She did all the right testing to rule out all the common mimics.  She does joint ultrasound, which is a bit of a gold standard as long as the machine is good and the examiner knows what they're looking at.  She asked a LOT of questions and took the time to listen to the answers.  She examined all of my joints, including the DIP joints (last ones on your fingers), which some docs ignore.  She took my report of what I was experiencing seriously instead of blowing me off as soon as the blood work came back.   This whole series of events is important because the current research/thinking is that early and aggressive treatment of RA gives you the best chance of remission and even though we aren't officially calling it RA at this point, we are hopefully heading off more severe pain/limited mobility by treating now.

Yes, I know RA is a fairly ominous diagnosis.  It shortens your lifespan, it slowly disables you, it attacks more than just your joints (notably the cardiovascular system).  Hopefully we are somewhat heading it off at the pass and if not, what will be, will be.  It's somewhat clarifying to confront the idea that maybe this period of life where I can move freely is more limited than I thought.  Just the possibility makes me appreciate things I took for granted 6 months ago and it makes it a little easier to "grab life by the horns" and not assume what I put off today can just be taken on tomorrow.

So that, as they say, is that.  If I seem to make some choices that seem a little out of left field, this might be why.  If I run 5 miles one day and can't unload my own groceries on another, this is why.  If I'm napping in the middle of the day, it's probably this, but I've also never learned that staying up until 2am is a bad idea, so it could just be regular ol' poor planning too.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Race Report: TriAggieland

I only have one triathlon on my schedule this year.  I was gifted this race entry for my birthday (all birthday presents should be race entries) and for numerous reasons, there's just not another triathlon in me for 2015.  I stuck to my training plan this time around, but I'm not able to push my hardest right now (more on that in another post), so I focused on slow and steady base building for most of the training, but still went all out with what I had for race day.

Josh had won a free entry to this race, so we did it together.  That means there were no spectators to take pictures, so all I've got for the race report is what the race photographers took (pictures are free to download at this race).  This was my third year doing TriAggieland, but ownership of the race changed hands, so there were some minor differences in set-up.  Construction necessitated some course changes too, so the race ended up a bit short.

Race morning came early, as usual.  Nothing unusual packed in my bag, I've got it pretty dialed in now...bike shoes, run shoes, socks, helmet, hat, goggles/swim cap, snack, water bottles, race belt, chapstick.  Late July in Texas guarantees a hot race, so I had a bottle of refrigerated gatorade on my bike and an insulated bottle of gatorade I froze solid the night before for the run.  New gear this year includes prescription sunglasses, which I really don't know how I did without for so long.  And also, my garmin 910.  I was so excited to use the auto multisport function to track everything.  I tried it out the morning of the race to make sure I had it down.  And then I forgot to go back in and restart multisport mode, so I ended up recording the entire race as a run.  Le sigh.

New this year were assigned spots in transition according to race number (which means according to swim start time), so Josh and I set up on different rows.  I did my usual blind walk from the pool to my transition spot so I could find the landmarks I'd be able to recognize without my glasses.  Before long, it was time to head inside to the pool deck to start the long wait for our start.

In this race, the athletes are supposed to start according to their swim times (which they report at registration), with the faster swimmers starting first.  You are assigned a bib number according to your swim time, and then you just line up in order.  Last year, they were VERY strict about staying in order, but the swim went quite smoothly.  This year, no one seemed to care whether you were in order or not.  People jumped around so much that I couldn't even figure out where I should be.  The 500s were lining up with the 100s.  They had said you could move back in line if you wanted, but please don't move forward.  That's not at all how it went though and the result was pretty ridiculous.  I was number 330 and eventually I saw a pretty solid group of 300s, so I asked a few people what they thought their swim time would be and did my best to put myself in the right spot.

The swim was a total cluster. Thanks to all that jumbling up of the numbers, the swim felt like one huge traffic jam.  I was assigned a middle of the pack number and expected about a 9 minute swim, not including the run to transition.  75m in, I passed a guy that was pulling himself along on the lane rope.  He wasn't in distress, just jumped in WAY too early, so I passed and went on my way.  150m in, there was a total log jam at the end wall making it impossible to just push off the wall and keep going because there was no free space at the wall. And that's pretty much how the rest of the swim went...getting stuck behind people that were slow and needed long breaks at the walls.  Don't get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with either of those things...as long as you're swimming with people who have a similar pace.   Overall the whole thing felt way too open water swim-ish for an indoor pool swim.  My total swim and run to transition ended up being 12:54, which was 1:13 slower than last year.  I spent way more than that amount of time caught up behind people.

T1 was also interesting.  I got confused and went down the wrong row, then I had trouble getting my socks on.  The whole thing felt slow and clumsy.  Yet, the time ended up being 01:57, my fastest T1 to date despite being further from the bike out than I think I've ever been before.

The bike was the bike.  The new course was a little easier, but I never got up the guts to ride on the aero bars, I stuck to the drops most of the time.  And apparently my helmet was crooked?

I ended up with a 15.67mph pace after the distance was accounted for, which is the fastest I've ever gone at this race.  I hit 16.55mph on an even flatter course last summer and I'm pretty sure I would've been there again if I hadn't been a scaredy cat, but overall, I'm happy with 15.5 and no road rash given the gear I'm working with.

T2 went well, no mishaps there.  My time was 01:29, which is average T2 for me when I walk, instead of run, out of transition.

I was really hungry while I was waiting for the swim and meant to eat on the bike, but then I just never felt like there was a good time for it.  Probably not a great idea to skip the fuel going into a really hot and sunny run, but it is what it is.  My frozen gatorade bottle was still slushy, which was absolutely awesome.  With my garmin at my disposal, I aimed to keep my heart rate in zone 4 for the run, so I based my running and walking breaks on that.  We had to do 2 loops on the run course.  When I was just starting out, I saw Josh coming in on his bike, so I knew he'd be catching up soon.  About a mile into the run, we met up and I gave him a drink of icy gatorade, then he took off to finish his race.  Near the end of the first loop, I passed the girls' youth tri team, which was set up with super soakers full of ice water to spray down the athletes that wanted it.
Near the end of the second loop, the heat was getting me down and my pace and form were definitely suffering.  The heat index was about 95 by this time, which is just really hot no matter what you do.
I rounded the last corner and saw a younger guy not far ahead of me.  I sped up in an effort to pass him and we had an all out sprint finish (which I lost by about half a step).  He gave me a fist bump and a, "nice finish" and the announcer gave us grief for having too much gas left in the tank.  I checked later though and I hit a new max heart rate (204) with that sprint, so I'm gonna say that was ALL I had left in me.  My run pace ended up being 13:15/mile, which is sloooow, but I've been slower, and it was really hot, so I'm still okay with it.

Swag was a little better than it had been under the previous owners.  We got a t-shirt and swim cap at packet pick-up and finishers got one of those super soft t-shirts (instead of a tech shirt), but also a good water bottle (already filled with ice water), sno-cone, beer, breakfast tacos and a cool medal where the center portion spins around:

All in all, a great time.  I ended up 34th out of 43 in my age group.  Not all that impressive, but better than nothing!  The field seemed much more competitive this year.  Last year was an anomaly because pool closures led to moving the race and it ended up the same weekend as a nearby half-ironman, so we lost a lot of top finishers.  The year before that still seemed less competitive though.  The race actually sold out this year and I think it's starting to draw in stronger competitors.

Next up: a half-marathon.  "What?!" you say.  "I thought you were done with running races! You just said you were done, not even 8 months ago."   I know, I know.  But races are a bit like birthing babies...you forget.  And there was a good deal on a local race.  And the heart rate training combined with Fresh Air podcasts really has been soooo much more enjoyable.  So I'm trying again.


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