Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hillandale Farm School Philosophy

Okay, the Hillandale Farm School has obviously been a very long time in the making.  It has been influenced by my homeschooling sister, a mutual friend to whom my sister introduced me, and a great deal of reading and introspection I have done on the subject.  Although day-to-day, we may leave a lot of room for spontaneity and for the kids to develop interests they wish to pursue more deeply, at different levels of planning, there is a very intentional path being followed at the weekly, monthly, annual, and school time levels.   I believe this to be one inherent strength of home education; with one set of people at the helm of the education, the overarching plan from inception of the plan until college time can be very logical and planned out, rather than the kind of patchwork effort that can occur as children bounce through different schools in a public or private system.  So, what makes the Hillandale Farm School tick, and how did we discern this particular approach?
Starting with a series of questions from Cathy Duffy’s 100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum, I started with a list:  What do you think is most important for your children to learn?  In no particular order:  I want my children to:
·         Learn how to think critically & analyze information
·         Become confident, independent young men
·         Be inquisitive, curiosity-driven learners who enjoy seeking knowledge
·         Develop self-discipline
·         Understand the role faith plays in their daily lives
·         Understand and utilize the scientific inquiry process
·         Read widely for pleasure
·         Value both teamwork and independent inquiry
·         Speak clearly, concisely, and persuasively
·         Write well
·         Understand how to overcome obstacles and rebound from mistakes
·         Incorporate daily physical activity as a given lifestyle
·         Make ethically based decisions
·         Face their days joyfully
·         Have a strong inner compass to guide their decision-making
·         Weigh desires and consequences, and freely make their choices
Obviously, this step does not instantly point to curriculum choice, but it is a start.  Creating a list such as this helps to understand the long-term goals we have for educating our sons.  If they can do these things, they will be well-prepared for college and the world in general, and clarifies why we want them to have an education in the first place.

                Next, also from a prompt from Duffy’s book, came a question about how we think children should learn, and following that, an elaborate checklist style questionnaire that helped us to compare several styles of homeschooling.  It was interesting to see that our initial impressions—heading back to basics in grammar, a strong spelling and writing program, unifying history, literature, and geography through the use of real books rather than dry texts for history, and taking a methodical approach through the sciences rather than the “a few weeks of this and that” that the public schools seem to favor, and real attention to music and art in the early grades were reflected in a couple of specific methodologies in the checkbox list—I netted high scores in unit studies, Charlotte Mason, and Classical curriculum approaches.  Although I read about other approaches with an open mind, I focused my further research on those three.  (I scored as 27% aligned with a “traditional” recreate school around the kitchen table program and 32% aligned with send your kids to someone else to homeschool them—validating the survey’s accuracy in my book, as neither of those approaches appeal to me in our situation).  Unit studies, Charlotte Mason, and Classical curricula all share in common an approach that makes logical connections between subjects, utilizes the reading of literature and quality books rather than overreliance on “textbooks” for learning, and if carefully planned, can allow for a logical progression of certain subjects over time.  Not all unit studies focused schools adhere to that last component; but it can exist.

                From here, and with the help of additional reading, thinking, more reading, more discussion, more reading, more thinking, we were able to begin trying out some ideas.  A good friend encouraged me to read Bauer’s The Well-Trained Mind, a book I had originally turned my nose up at as being too rigid, but which has now informed much of our approach to homeschooling, including its encouragement to not simply blindly follow all of its outlines, but to use them as a jumping point to make some of our own choices.  We incorporated Latin into the children’s program, and planned for later inclusion of additional language, logic, and rhetoric as they grow.  I was intrigued by the notion of the trivium—3 stages of learning—grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the idea of presenting history/literature/geography in more or less linear order by both Bauer and by running across the book Augustus Caesar’s World, which takes a snapshot of the world at the time of Caesar, so the reader can see all of his contemporaries around the globe.  I was also inspired by son#1, who for months had been going to the library to pick out books on his own to supplement his own interests—after reading Percy Jackson, he loaded up on Greek Mythology books and Ancient Greece nonfiction; after learning to play Sid Meyer’s Civilization, he went back to the library and loaded up on books about world leaders.  It seemed like such a natural way to learn!

                So now we had some goals to head toward, some beginning ideas for curriculum, and a background educational philosophy to guide us.  It was time to put down on paper a final statement—the Hillandale Farm School Philosophy Statement.  What is it that drives our decision making?  What helps us to decide whether we are heading down the correct path to meet our educational goals for the kids, or need a course correction?  Why are we doing what we are doing and how are we doing it better than anybody else could do it for the kids?

The Hillandale Farm School Philosophy Statement

Through homeschooling, we will foster a lifelong love of learning through which our goals will be achieved.  We will view the whole world as a classroom, and develop the practice of discernment to determine which lessons are bringing us closer to our goals.  We will work together to dismantle one another’s roadblocks to success, and rejoice in seeing all succeed.

We will accept responsibility for learning, and value knowledge for its own worth rather than external rewards, while also keeping appropriate respect for the worthiness of working toward a specific life goal.

We seek balanced, accurate, and deep knowledge in mathematics, science, history, and literature.  We will become fluent in written and oral communication.  We will understand the scientific process, logic and argument, and be prepared to respectfully and knowledgably navigate the world around us.  We will attend to our physical and spiritual health and fitness.

We will develop the confidence and ability to set and achieve goals that will enable us to live ethical, independent, and joyful lives.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The "S" Word

     New home educators (look, I flip-flopped again, now it's home education!) get a barrage of "queries" when their friends, families, co-workers, and acquaintances first learn of their new enterprise.  Happily in our case, the vast majority of these queries have represented genuine curiosity, support, and understanding of what it means to educate one's children at home-- can you legally do that?  (yes, in every state).  Is it hard to get permission? (no, you don't even need permission; it is your legal right, but the requirements to register your school vary from state to state, and it helps all home educators if you comply with the law, but don't allow schools to bully you into providing more than the law requires).  How can you spend all day with your kids without going crazy? (topic for another post).  How can you be qualified to teach your kids if you don't have a degree in education? (a future blog post).  How do you know what to teach?  (It isn't hard-- what do you want your children to know?  Or if you're really stuck, a trip to the library will treat you to a plethora of books such as Bauer's The Well-Trained Mind or many others that will provide terrific guidance to get you started).  However, the questions most people really, really get Stuck on, is the "S" word-- Socialization.  And for some reason, this "S" word really brings out strong opinions in many.

     I cannot blame anybody for wondering about this "S word" in particular.  Most of us who have always just assumed that the public option was the best solution have also always just assumed that the best social environment for our kids was to lock them in a room all day, segregated by age, regardless of academic achievement, athletic ability, or social maturity all day, at least for the first six (K-5th in many schools) years of their education, unable to talk directly to their classmates for most of that day-- in today's schools, even talking during lunch is now either forbidden or a practical impossibility due to the extraordinarily short time permitted to wolf down sustenance.  We sent our children off to school assuming the same relaxed atmosphere we enjoyed as kids, including some social time in the classroom, at least two recess periods of some length, and a decent and noisy lunch lunchtime-- all things that have pretty much disappeared from today's schools.  And today's recess periods, a paltry 30 minutes including time to line up silently, are often also segregated by grade/age, again regardless of maturity or athletic ability or interests or friendships.  However, like most parents, we never questioned any of this-- everybody sends their kids off to institutions school, so it's what is normal and therefore the best environment, right?  How can kids possibly develop normally outside of that normal environment?  I started my wakeup call (see my first blog post) when I heard one of son#1's teachers yelling at the kids that their mouths were to stay shut during the school day unless it was recess time.  That is socialization, right?

     What I hear from many who do not like to hear that we are home educating, frankly, is fear and confusion, and with that I can definitely empathize.  Fear of the unknown is a natural, normal human reaction.  When we are fearful, we tend to attack, and socialization is the easiest thing, seemingly, to attack; nobody really feels the need of special expertise to discuss socialization-- most people went to school, and at some point, have had friends.  What most people overlook, however, is that they associate friends with school, because since they went to school, it dominated their time. 

     Home education is wonderfully freeing.  It means children are free to socialize with children across age boundaries.  They are free to find kids with similar interests, across grade levels.  They can take independent classes with kids from many different geographic areas during field trips.  They interact more with adults, exercise more autonomy, and become more independent.  If you pursue an alternate plan, you will make friends elsewhere, because people do exist elsewhere-- people of every walk of life, disposition, ability, interest, and background.  These people are found everywhere, not just in schools.

    Fast forward from the thought experiment to a snapshot of the past week's worth of my children's activities:
     Tuesday night:  went to see the Harlem Globetrotters with a group of friends.  ages spanned from 7 to 12, five kids and three adults, kids from three separate schools, including our HS, a public charter, and a private school.
     Wednesday morning:  nature and poetry class at Longwood Gardens in the morning.  Kids were broken into groups initially by approximate grade levels as assigned by parents by academic achievement.  Demographics and geography from all over DE, PA, NJ, MD.  Lunch and play together after in Longwood across age spans from 5-12.
     Wednesday afternoon:  Swimming lessons at the athletic club (HAC).  Demographics and ages all over the map.  Plenty of play time before/after with other kids.
     Thursday noon:  gym class at the HAC.  mixed gym class for homeschoolers; 8 kids who meet regularly (same kids every week) ages 7-13 with an excellent coach.  Group has time to play together spontaneously afterward.
     Thursday evening:  karate (son#1) and gymnastics (son#2) at the HAC with mixed age groups and a reliable cast of characters.  Kids have friends there with whom to play after activity.
     Friday morning:  science class at Delaware museum of natural history, mixed age groups and demographics, same cast of characters every other week.  highly interactive class.
     Saturday afternoon:  hike with Dad with the neighborhood kids.  5 kids from the neighborhood hiked through the local nature area.
     Sunday morning:  Sunday school at Skyline UMC.  Mixed ages and demographics.  Helped clean up the Sunday school room, lots of time to interact throughout the morning.

     Throughout the week, we also had opportunities to eat out at lunchtime, using our assertive voices to order properly, our good manners when interacting with the adults around us, practicing patience and conversation while waiting, and making good choices.  Also throughout the week there was ample opportunity to play with the kids in our neighborhood after they returned from school, since our kids have no "homework" once they have finished their work for the day (though they often choose to continue reading about topics that interest them)!

     Somehow, I'm not seeing the social deprivation.  In fact, I'm seeing far better social opportunity and social interaction than my kids ever got in school, including chances for repeat interaction with set groups of kids.  I believe that interacting across age groups and a wider variety of social and geographic boundaries with both semi-structured AND unstructured time built in will result in greater empathy and more maturity in the long run than would result from being locked in a can all week with same-age peers.  Naturally, the opportunities we choose will need to evolve over time as the kids grow, as well, and they will have increasing say in what they choose to do.

     So . . . if you are one of those watching either us, or someone else you care about home educate and fear is gripping you, or you wish you dared home educate, but you just cannot, all because of . . . the dreaded "S word," I offer you this advice.  Fear not.  Have confidence.  Home educating does not mean locking the children in the basement, or shielding them in any way from social interaction.  In most cases, home education means boosting childrens' social experiences in a very rich, meaningful way.  There are entire books about homeschooling that list dozens of primary references citing not only the social adjustment of homeschooled children, but interviews with college counselors and admissions officers who have tracked home educated individuals, noting how easily they have adjusted to college life, as many have already been exposed to practical life skills, mixed group social settings, and independent learning situations unfamiliar to the conventionally schooled students.  Instead of just imagining your way through the situation, pick up some reliable reference material at your local library, and do yourself and those you care about a favor and educate yourself on the subject, and you may well be surprised that in addition to a fantastic education, the "S word" may well be one of the home educated student's greatest strengths!

--Thanks for reading!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

What I Learned in my First Weeks

     Wow, off and running!  It's a real temptation to talk about all the cool stuff we've done-- experiments in Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, using the neighbor's trampoline, field trips to the local Natural History Museum and local Zoo for science classes, starting to learn Latin, drawing a giant map on the sliding doors to add to whenever we encounter a new place in History or literature, or writing on the 5-foot-long timeline on the wall when we encounter new people, events, or other time-bound issues to keep track of so we can compare them with cultures we discover later in other units, kitchen-table experiments with light and color, and awesome dinner-time and car conversations and art projects and music and swimming and gymnastics and karate and hikes . . . whew!  No wonder everyone is sleeping well at night these days!
     It sounds as if we've really learned a lot!
     All of that first paragraph . . . all of those adventures, all of those facts . . . those are great and wonderful things, but all of that pales in comparison, in these first couple of weeks, compared to what we have learned about our children, each other, and what I am beginning to learn about myself and my capacity to absorb and change still, even in my (gasp) 40's.

      1)  Slowing down is good.
A few years ago, my husband was traveling and I required knee surgery.  I had already been through one similar procedure, and knew recovery would be pretty rapid, so no need for him to come home, but with two little ones running around (then ages 7 and 4) his very generous aunt came to stay for several days to see that everyone was fed, clothed, cleaned, hugged, and arrived to and from school on time, and took me to and from surgery, putting her "somewhat hectic" life on hold in the meantime.  Upon leaving, she commented, "I don't know what it is that you always seem to be rushing toward, or away from, but you seem to live your life as if always in a great hurry, trying to cram in as much as possible all the time.  I hope there isn't some great need that we are all unaware of yet for you to get it all in so fast."
     The first lesson I have learned during home schooling is that you easily accomplish far more by not setting a forced march pace.  Son#2 (age 7) was approaching Latin time, and said, "Mom, I don't feel good about starting a new chapter today.  I just don't feel like I really understand all of the last chapters yet, or all of the vocabulary memorized completely.  Can I go back and review today instead?"  Did I have a lesson plan for his progression through the book?  Well, sort of.  When he said that, the lesson plan mattered less to me than the maturity and wisdom that he had just demonstrated.  I told him to go ahead and review, but to please let me know what it was that was giving him trouble, and we could review it together, too, if he liked.  By the end of Latin time that day, he felt ready to proceed to the next chapter the following day.  There is no point in racing through material half understood.  Do it again and again, from a different point of view if necessary, until it is mastered, before moving on.  Otherwise, why did you bother doing it at all?  In home schooling, there is no reason to let anyone proceed with a grade of "C" or "D."  We aren't on an artificial timetable, unless we impose one on ourselves.

     2)  Being flexible is not just for the gym
Our history/geography/Literature/Writing unit is probably my most carefully plotted curriculum.  I don't subscribe to or purchase a "boxed" or pre-written curriculum guide from anyone; I follow a "spine" book, loosely, and we talk about a few pre-planned topics from that book each day for four days per week; during reading time, the kids read literature related to our main theme (right now, it's the ancient Greeks; son#1 might read a biography of Alexander the Great, Heredotus, Archimedes, or Galen; he might read passages from a well-written history anthology; he might read some classic myths, or he might read some fun fiction related to our topic, such as the Percy Jackson books; son#2 might read a child's biography of Socrates, a Magic Treehouse story set in ancient Greece, or age-appropriate non-fiction books about being a child in ancient Greece.  If they encounter appropriate information, they update the wall maps and timelines, they ask questions.  Son#1 read "Spartapuss," and was sufficiently intrigued that he headed to the library and checked out a book on Spartacus, to compare the fictional account to the historical one.
     Because I am not a walking encyclopedia on ancient Greece or any other ancient culture, I read ahead; I plan the lessons meticulously and outline what I want to teach them a week in advance.  I learn the maps and the stories and myths.  I start to feel rather personally invested in this plan!  However, the other week, I realized that one day's plan was . . . well . . . not of any interest whatsoever to two boys.  And it was not really going to further the education of a 2nd and 4th grader to know that women's tunics could be fastened this way or that way and be called by two different names depending on the kind of pin and shoulder fastening.  Really . . . why would they care?  I looked at the other topics that were slated for that day . . . all similarly . . . borrrrrring and irrelevant.  They were on the plan because they had appeared sequentially in my "Spine" book and I'd been frantically racing through my outline.  Whoops.  Now what?  Here's what.  Scrap the plan.  Salvage the one part that was kind of interesting-- architecture-- and put together a guide for identifying different kinds of Greek columns.  Put the kids in the car, go meet Dad for lunch, and then go walkabout on campus at the university, and identify the different types of Greek columns around campus.  Score!  Kids loved it, we found all the major types, and the kids learned a good reason to study these people who lived so long ago . . . a living example of how their lives still influence how we live and build today.  Had I not been flexible in my plan, we'd have had a rather dull and dreary afternoon, with the boys bored, and me frustrated that they didn't like my nice lesson.
     I overheard son#1 telling his buddy, "It's really cool.  I normally start my day by reading for half an hour to help wake up my brain, then do about an hour of math, so I know what to expect.  But if we have a field trip or a doc appointment or something, we might do music in the car, and move math to later on in the afternoon, and can even finish up history after dinner if we want to . . . and if I get really interested in something, I can finish it instead of having to put my book away just because a bell rang.  Mom makes me a list of what she expects from me, and trusts me to get it done.  I know she'll check up on my work later, but she doesn't bug me all the time while I'm doing it, so if I want to do spelling before grammar instead of after, it's okay."
     Coupled with clear expectations, flexibility makes for a dynamic, interesting day, week, and year of learning.

     3)  It isn't really home schooling . . . it's home education.
Sound nitpicky, doesn't it?  But it's a huge leap to make.  And once I made it, I was really off and running with teaching my kids at home.  Schooling at home is really not about recreating the school environment around the kitchen table.  It isn't necessary to do so, because I'm not teaching 30 kids; I'm teaching two.  This idea isn't about being superior to teachers; most are smart, dedicated, hard-working individuals.  But teaching at home allows me to customize the kids' education in a way that schools simply cannot.  son#1 is all over the map in terms of grade level for each subject, as is son#2.  In elementary school, this is simply not tolerated; kids are stuffed into a classroom based on age, not ability level, and they stay in that same classroom for every subject, regardless of whether their abilities are strong in one subject and weak in another.  Sometimes there is some wiggle room for "groups" for reading or math, though that causes social problems, because kids all know which groups are the "smart" and the "dumb" groups, as they are held publicly for all to see.  At home, there are no "groups."  You simply work at your current level in each subject, and make progress at an appropriate pace to challenge yourself.
     Also, there is the chance to throw out entirely a curriculum choice that isn't working.  There are more approaches to teaching math than you can shake a stick at.  My first choice for math for son#2 was a complete bust.  As it was a consumable workbook, resale wasn't an option, and into the recycling bin in went.  He's actually tackling math in a very multi-modal way, and that book was only one component-- the other components are all working beautifully, but that book was the "spine" of the program.  So now we have moved on to another program that, after working with him for three weeks, I can see where it is probably a far better fit.  So on to Singapore Math we go for son#2.  Very little repetition of the copy this example problem type, lots of tips on doing mental math.  We continue on with the Khan Academy, a strong tool, and Hot Dots, a tool he truly loves, as well as manipulatives such as Fraction Stacks, a practice clock, and play money.  It's a rather robust math program, but he will certainly know math!  son#1 is doing really well with Life of Fred, a more literature-based math series, Khan Academy, some logic puzzles, and challenge books that go beyond "typical" math, such as The Number Devil and Penrose the Mathematical Cat, plus 70 Must-Know Word Problems from Singapore Math.  Again, sure, he could go "faster" if I just told him to zip through Life of Fred, but is the point to zoom through so I can brag about how fast he is "doing math," or is the point to let him see math from many sides, so he can learn to truly appreciate it and understand it?
     The same thing applies to their Latin programs.  My life would have been far easier had I put them both into the same elementary Latin program.  However, after researching the available Latin programs, I really felt that my boys learn in very different ways, and chose two different programs, one most appropriate to each.  They probably could have both ticked off correct boxes from the same program, but I feel that each will truly learn more of the language from the programs I chose for them.  I don't want to produce a proud trancript for them that shows off MY prowess as a teacher at the end of each year.  I want them to emerge from each learning unit of study having learned something, learned HOW to learn, and having really earned an education.

     4)  Patience is a Virtue  and Cleanliness is Incompatible with Home Education
One of the most common comments I hear from others is, "I love the idea of home schooling, but I could never do it."  What the speaker most often refers to is not the economic impact (a real enough issue) of having one non-working spouse or a single-parent household; the speaker is referring to the idea of spending all day, every day, with your children, and with your children working with you, not necessarily being shoved out into the yard.  Sounds awful, doesn't it?  I mean, we all love and cherish our kids, right?  And I completely understand their meaning; I once thought the same thing-- gee, I love my kids, but I also cherish my "me time" when they get on that bus in the morning-- and when will ever get to the gym, grocery shop, go to the doctor, read a book, or anything else?  Or enjoy a moment's quiet?
     What I have learned in the last few weeks is that I really, really, really like my kids.  Of course I love them.  I always have.  And I've always loved doing stuff with them.  But my husband and I talked seriously about how I could call for an SOS while I was home schooling when I started to suffocate from never getting a moment's break.  We're not talking about the 0-5 age, when it's non-stop, but you know that eventually they will go to kindergarten.  This is a commitment until they leave for college.  But since starting to school at home, I have really found that I like spending time with my kids.  They are smart, funny, insightful, and have a lot to say that is worth hearing.  They're fun to play, shop, hike, swim, read, and hang out with.
     Schooling at home has changed all of us.  During the day, we are all very busy, and  have assigned roles and tasks.  I have not heard, "Mom, I'm bored!" since our venture began.  We have had some fascinating conversations at mealtime.  My 7YO asked over dinner whether the Greek Tyrants were really able to quell class warfare about the privileges of the aristocracy, and if so, why did they move on to democracy?  And if they liked their Tyrants enough to ask them to come to power, why does Tyrant have a bad meaning now?  My 10YO commented that since home schooling has started, he doesn't seem to watch much TV or spend time playing video games any more.  He concluded, "I guess I've learned I have a lot more interesting things to do with my time now, even though I'm home a lot more."  Both kids are helping to maintain our new compost bin, and are clamoring for us to put in a vegetable garden, because they enjoyed maintaining the one we had in Minnesota on our sabbatical.
     However, being constantly available for questions (Mom, why IS the abbreviation for pound lb?) planning out lessons (trial and error:  not leaving a lesson plan for the boys on the kitchen table the night before causes them to have a bad day for the entire next day-- they get a sense of security knowing that there is a written plan, even if we end up deviating from it) and grading and filing assignments (eventually the kids will take over filing) is not always compatible with keeping the house in perfect order.  Particularly when we move about the house throughout the day as we study, and scoop up and run to a field trip at a moment's notice.  I try to get dishes done, stay ahead of the laundry, and keep the kitchen table and floor cleaned up.  If possible, I try to get dinner planned, and on a terrific day, started.  I can crank laundry through the machine and dryer (I'd love a clothes line for warmer weather) but it might not get folded with a lot of efficiency.
     At night, instead of zoning out in front of the TV, my kids are more likely to approach me with a game of Monopoly, blockus, or Great States and want to play, or read a book together, or even play a game on my ipod such as Stack the States.  Or son#2 gathers up his stuffed animals and re-enacts the siege of Troy while son#1 reads the Chronicles of Narnia.  Or they go play outside with other kids in the neighborhood who have finally finished their homework after school.  But if they want to play with me, instead of, "I'm busy," I have found that even after spending all day with them, I am more likely to drop what I'm doing and say, "Sure, let's play."  The house, the bread, the kitchen, can wait.
     My normal MO is to want to start a task and focus on it obsessively, start to finish.  If I'm going to clean the family room, the family scatters, lest they be scooped up, deposited in an appropriate location, dusted and scrubbed, and left to dry.  I show no mercy when I'm on a mission.  A ringing phone either doesn't get answered, or gets answered with fantastic irritation, because I WAS CLEANING AND IT INTERRUPTED ME.  Home schooling does not work well with this approach.  By nature, schooling at home encourages inquiry, pushes kids to their boundaries, which means they will require help and instruction, and is supposed to foster trusting relationships.  There is no trust if asking Mom for help gets you snapped at.  Hence, my house is not at its tidiest at the moment.  And I have had to learn to be very, very patient, and had to learn that being interrupted (not mid-sentence, but in the course of what else I might have been trying to sneak in) is actually what I signed up for.  The kids weren't interrupting my house-cleaning; I was interrupting their schooling by cleaning the house.  We have one "flexible" day each week during which I can actually get some more done, and on which they are more free to help me.  I have to learn to be okay with that.

5)  You Don't Need to Spend a Fortune to Create Memorable Lessons.  But Gosh is it Easy to Do Just That!
Some of our best lessons so far have been free.  We used the trampoline and playground balls as described above to explain black holes, gravity, and Einstein's Theory of General Relativity in such a clear way that my 7YO was able to dictate a paper about them later, and get it right.  We were able to use paper, magic markers, and an existing science kit (Snap Circuits) to demonstrate color and light.  We cobbled together our own guide to Dorian, Ionic, and Corinthian Greek columns and drove to the local university, and walked around, taking notes on notebook paper, and snapping pictures with our existing digital camera, to learn how Greek architecture looked and was still influencing building styles today.  For one art lesson, we looked at pictures of Greek sculpture in the encyclopedias and online, then used existing modeling clay to make our own sculptures.  It was the first art lesson son#1 has enjoyed since private kindergarten 5 years ago-- he said, "You mean art class can be more than just painting and coloring with crayons?".  None of those lessons cost us a dime.  The Khan Academy is a fantastic resource, not only for mathematics videos and practice exercises, but for kid-friendly videos on all kinds of topics, and it's free (though they do accept donations)!  The local public library is a fantastic resource for many, many books, and the children's librarian is a great resource within the library, for additional recommendations to your curriculum.  Interlibrary loans extend the collection.  And the library can offer many more free programs (we watched a professional storyteller last month, TAHIRA, who was fantastic).  Designing your own curriculum instead of investing in boxed curricula saves buckets of money, if you have the confidence to do so.
     However.  The home education movement has grown by leaps and bounds.  There are religious home schoolers.  There are secular home schoolers.  There are unschoolers.  There are classical, Charlotte Mason, unit study, eclectic, and I'm sure many other schools of thought that I haven't heard of.  And the publishing industry has responded.  Individual entrepreneurs are entering the market almost daily with websites and self-published curricula and kits practically whack you in the head every time you turn around.  A good friend of mine refers to falling into the temptation of these many, often attractive and often very high quality offerings, as "spending accidents."  As a devoted former quilter, I know the feeling.  I have a room full of unused quilting fabric.  It's really easy to suddenly "need" just "one more book, because this one is PERFECT!"
     I am starting to think that the answer will lie somewhere between having a budget for each quarter (yearly or semi-annually could be problematic, if I need a supply and have to wait six more months for the new budget period) and having a VERY  clear list of my goals for each semester or year laid out; when deciding whether I truly need a new book or piece of equipment, two techniques may come into play:  a) let it sit, and see if it's still urgent several days later, or if it's done looking all shiny by then; and b) looking back over the goals for the semester/year, evaluating what we already have on hand, and then seeing if the new item is really necessary to meet those goals.  (See a future post for "Whoa, Nellie!  But, I want to each it ALL NOW!")
6)  In Other Words, it Isn't About Us; it's About Them.
It was funny; this section was going to be the wrap-up for today's post.  And then this morning in church, our pastor kept repeating as part of a particular message she was making, "It's not about me."  Kinda funny!
     Part of making this transition to schooling at home successful has involved making this effort about getting an education, not re-creating school in the home environment.  It has involved letting go of artificial deadlines, and remembering that it is about teaching the kids how to learn, and then giving them the space and the trust to do so, rather than force-marching them towards arbitrary goals.  We are not seeking bragging rights for finishing first-- how could we?  Millions and billions of people have already graduated from every kind of school there is!  It has involved paying attention to their signals, both overt and subtle, and tailoring the curriculum to maximize their potentials.  Over time, this will actually lead to greater independence and an ability to thrive in advance education, rather than a dependence upon me, as they discover the process of how to learn, and how to go and discover the answers to questions that they develop-- after laying the solid foundation on which to build.  Part of this transition has involved letting go of a certain amount of control-- in a planned fashion.  Flexibility, with clear expectations and a long-range framework, fosters trust, curiosity, and enthusiasm for learning.  Part of this transition has involved discovering what is important, and how to balance the rest of what must happen.  It involves juggling wants, desires, discipline, and modeling correct decision-making.
     While I would not call our approach to home education child-centered-- we are not "unschoolers," we use more of the Classical curriculum than any other (see Bauer's The Well-Trained Mind)-- the ultimate goal is still centered around providing a solid education for our sons.  There are no accolades or prizes to be won for the teachers in this curriculum, nor should there be.  The goal should be happy, healthy, well-educated, critically thinking, capable young men who are prepared for the world.  It's all about them.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Journey Toward Homeschooling, Part 2

Last week I told #1 son's story; here is #2 son's story.

The first thing you need to know is that my 7YO son is an amazing, bright, sunny, funny, intelligent, loving, loyal, curious, brave, affectionate little boy who happens to have a genetic condition known as 47,XXY.  Some people refer to this genetic arrangement at Klinefelter's Syndrome (KS); I won't argue with anyone about that designation; those semantics could be a whole blog post.  We'll stick with 47,XXY and argue the KS thing another day.  I only bring it up because more people have heard that name.

Some of the pediatric symptoms of 47,XXY can include low muscle tone, milestone delays in gross motor and/or fine motor development, delayed loss of infant reflexes, poor suck reflex, delayed speech development, tall stature starting by age 5, continuing delayed gross and/or fine motor development after age 5, motor planning and motor dyspraxia, executive function problems, ADHD, autistic-like symptoms, anxiety, sensory-integrative disorders, epilepsy, auditory processing disorder, difficulty learning to read, delayed development of social skills, and several more.  As 47,XXY is a spectrum disorder (the extra X chromosome can come from Mom or from Dad, and some people may have an extra X in just a few cells instead of all of them (mosaicism) each person is treated to a distinct subset of these symptoms, but rarely would he have all of them.  Some lucky few have few to none.  What is true is that Son#2 was lucky to be diagnosed-- only about 25% of males are diagnosed during childhood in the United States, despite this being a fairly common genetic arrangement, with 1/667 males being 47,XXY, and 1/500 live births being a male or female in possession of an extra 1 or more X or Y chromosomes.  Please see or for more information!  In fact, there is a great conference coming up in April in Annapolis, hosted by The Focus Foundation!

My husband and I first suspected son #2 had issues pretty much right away, but were reassured by our pediatrician.  By 12 months of age, we were certain of it-- low muscle tone, delayed milestones (not one or two, but most of them) yet signs of good intelligence and spunk were there in abundance, and our pediatrician blew off our concerns.  An evaluator misreported his status at 15 months, but when he didn't walk until 23 months or speak his first words until 26 months, we finally got him some attention, though even then the pediatrician was pretty dismissive that he needed any special attention.  He did, at that point though, finally qualify for some state services including physical and speech therapy, beginning just prior to his third birthday, and on his third birthday he was handed off to our local school district, still sunny, smart, friendly, shy, eager to learn, loving, and unable to climb, run, jump, get two feet off the ground, or slide, swing, or climb.

At his first IEP evaluation, we got a preview of things to come.  The school district declared that he had made such progress, having actually gotten two feet off the ground at the same time in an attempt to jump, and getting up to almost 80% proficiency in speech production, that his IEP should be canceled.  Then the physical therapist arrived at the meeting and lit everyone up.  Very attached to Son#2, and impressed by his tough work ethic in therapy, she fought for him in a way we didn't yet know how to do, and the IEP was quickly rewritten, and it stuck for another year-- his second year of preschool.

The second year was more of the same.  I left the meeting puzzled and disappointed, and wishing I had brought an advocate with me, wondering how the school could sit there with a room full of specialists, and tell me it was up to me to explain to them what his needs were and how to help him, or else the IEP would be cancelled.  Weren't they supposed to have done an evaluation?  And why didn't the evaluations they did do, look at more than just benchmark averages?  A young, bright kid can use his intelligence to "cover" for specific deficiencies that will come back to bite him later . . . shouldn't these people who have advanced degrees in specific fields such as speech and psychology be aware of this fact?  Where are the subtests?  Where is the data with classroom performance showing the discrepancy between his ability and his classroom performance, and why are they asking ME to show this?  Isn't this their job?  Even after protesting the evaluation, we met again with what looked like the same cast of characters and ultimately were left with a 504 (a plan provided under a different law, the ADA, which provides accommodations, not services, and a lot less legal protection for the student), not an IEP (defined under the IDEAS law, which provides services and legal rights) as he headed into kindergarten, and an extraordinarily unsatisfying "solution" that for his dysgraphia and other issues, he would simply not have to complete his work.   I'll stop there; the issues this brings up are rather obvious, the reasons we didn't take the district to court are not, but those issues are not the subject of this blog.  The fact remains that the district deliberately was playing dirty pool with son#2 and several other children and they knew it.  Off he went through Kindergarten and first grade with a 504 plan that didn't really meet his needs.  We were "assured" against our better knowledge that he was performing at grade level.  In short, the school dug in their heels and cancelled son #2's IEP coincident with his diagnosis of 47,XXY, and were told that it was because WE could not PROVE he was one of the over 70% of children with the condition who suffered academic consequences from it, and that it was our burden, and not theirs, to demonstrate that he had a problem (that is nearly a direct quote from the district special ed person).

What a surprise, then, to arrive at a parent teacher conference and be told for the first time, nearly halfway into the school year a year and a half later, that our son was in the "high risk" reading group, as his reading was so far behind grade level benchmarks.  Not one  person from the school had contacted us to let us know of our son's placement in this group.  It was at this point that we contacted Dr. Carole Samango-Sprouse of The Focus Foundation, and set up a multi-day, in-depth academic and physical evaluation for son#2.  We inquired about getting the district to pay for the outside evaluation, as there are provisions that require them to do so.  However, they once again stonewalled us; we were now a year and a half without an IEP for our son, and they wanted to institute a lengthy process to approve this evaluator, and we were not willing to make our son wait yet another six months just to start testing, and we went out of pocket.  It was well worth the effort.  We ended up with a detailed report explaining exactly where son#2 was strong (sometimes, surprisingly strong!  Yay!) and where he was running smack into roadblocks.  The report confirmed what we already knew:  We had a very, very bright little boy, whose language difficulties were causing him to go unrecognized in areas where he was strong, and thus not being permitted to progress as rapidly as he could.  These same difficulties also were not being addressed, and thus were not permitting him to overcome them and progress as rapidly as he could in the areas where he struggled.  All of his roadblocks were of a type that CAN be overcome, with appropriate, timely support, and the clock was ticking.  The report also outlined specific recommendations for how to address our son's challenges.  Upon receiving the detailed report back from Dr. Samango-Sprouse, I sent a copy of it to the school, requesting a follow-up meeting to implement her suggestions.  I received no response.  Normally, this "oversight" would have brought on a firestorm of protest and documentation from me, however, this brings us up to our very happy four months in Saint Paul, MN.

Thank goodness for Horace Mann Elementary School in St. Paul, MN.  What a gem of a place!  Son#2 was welcomed with open arms while we were there on sabbatical.  Knowing that they had little incentive to invest in this child, as he was to be there for such a short time, they nonetheless said that every child is important to them, and every child will learn while at Horace Mann.  And son#2 did indeed learn.  He received support in every area where he needed it.  He received support in areas where Dr. Samango-Sprouse's report identified needs and where they found creative ways that I never thought of to challenge him.  He was encouraged to sail in areas like math where he was really strong, separating out the language problems from the math.  And the other students just adopted and helped him, taking him right in and accepting him socially as one of them-- talk about "Minnesota nice!"  He actually asked for additional school time, similar to his brother, showing up an hour early for school for chess club, and staying an hour late, for art lessons.

We returned from Minnesota with a comprehensive IEP in place, and were heartened to learn that son#2 was returning to his old school, to a classroom staffed by a teacher with a degree in special education!  How awesome is that?  Apparently not too awesome.  After a long and frustrating (probably longer than legally permisable) wait, we finally met as a team.  We discovered that son#2 had been inexplicably placed in the remedial math group, instead of the advanced group.  I'll fast-forward, and give my favorite quote of the entire meeting.  First the context:  This district has nearly 20,000 students.  That's correct: 20,000 students.  And that's only about half of the families-- at least half have gone over the state line to better schools, gone to private schools, fled to charter schools (technically still district schools) or fled to neighboring districts.  So here's the great quote:  We don't know how to help your son, because we don't have very many special education students in this district.  And of the kids who probably are special needs, not many families apply for social benefits; the families in this district tend to be "high quality" families who take care of their problems at home, instead of dumping them on us.

Remember, in part one, where I had a day when I filled out the paperwork to become a homeschooling family?  I submitted the paperwork to the state exactly ten minutes after that statement came out of the mouth of a district-level special education person, and son#2 began staying home with me to homeschool the following week, when he conveniently (honesty) got sick (son#1 began the week after that, ten days after the state paperwork was submitted).  We had two options.  Take them to court, and sacrifice our sons' educations while we sucked away our time, money, emotional and spiritual and physical well-being over a course of probably a handful of years over a sysiphean task (this district has already been successfully sued over failing to provide IEP-mandated services to young students-- obviously, they didn't learn a thing from the experience).  Or, pour our time, love, and resources into actually giving our sons an education.

Here's the final kicker:  During the week that son#2 began homeschooling and son#1 was finishing up, son#1 was interrogated by son#2's student teacher as to his whereabouts.  Then the school nurse was directed to call us and try to scare us out of homeschooling, insisting (at the principal's direction) that we probably hadn't registered properly with the state and could expect a visit from the truant officer.  I wished them good luck with that, gave them the name of the state liaison to home schools, and suggested they send any such requests through her office, and asked if they'd like her email address, since I was in contact with her, as I was already quite legally registered as a state school.

We are now 2 & 1 weeks into our new venture, and both boys are showing signs of being extraordinarily happy about the change.  They're working harder than ever, having both been "promoted" a grade by their new teacher/principal/superintendant/leader of the pack/momma duck, or more than one grade in certain subjects.  They're taking cool subjects.  They're writing on the walls and windows (a timeline and hand-drawn map), reading Homer's Odyssey (a prose version), and when they don't really grasp something, which is rare, but can happen, they're encouraged to go back and explore it in another way until they do get it, not to just forge on ahead because there's some new deadline coming up as there is in the public school classroom.  We have no deadlines other than those we choose to impose upon ourselves.  As a result, they're learning faster than ever, because they're eager.

And my moderate-to-mildly language-disabled child?  His favorite new subjects (being taught a grade-level ahead in one case, and brand-new in the other) are . . . grammar and Latin.