Friday, December 7, 2012

I Had My 7 . . . Will My Kids?/Farewell Miss Schmidt

Through my entire public school career, K-12, I can count 7 truly outstanding teachers, who had a major influence on me (and I went to what is considered by many to be one of the top districts in PA, or at least it was at the time, back in the day).

So today, I have two issues, one of which can't actually be resolved, just dealt with.  The other, maybe my fellow homeschoolers can help me put back into perspective once the shock of the first has resolved a bit.

So the first is sad:  One of "my seven" has passed away.  A truly influential teacher, though she taught in my middle school years (6th--8th here) she had a significant impact on my later school and career choices and success.  Dealing with an interesting and challenging age group in a school setting, she was quick with a smile, had a memorable (and frequent) laugh that could be heard all down the hallway, and was one of the first to reach out to and encourage new students migrating into the school during their middle school years and help them find a way to become involved in some type of group or find a group of friends in a pretty clique-ish school.  She was the cheerleading squad coach-- and was, according to my friends who were on that team, much beloved by the squad.  She had the energy and stamina to take this age group camping, hiking, to the beach, to NYC, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Gettysburg, and other locales that would terrify many a teacher of the newly adolescent set, and we had a great balance of supervision and freedom-- I have no memories of "line up and shut up."  She co-ran a dissecting club, placing scalpels in our hands every week with cheery aplomb.  She dealt with messy girl issues, boy-girl issues, hormonal issues, and educational issues all with professionalism and kindness.  I don't believe I ever took a multiple choice exam in her classroom.  Her funeral is today, and unfortunately, with a sick kid at home, it is just a tad too far away for me to make it there to pay my last respects to her and her family for all her years of tremendously hard work and dedication.  I know at least one of my other "seven" will be in attendance, and it would have been wonderful to see her.

That is my first issue-- I'm truly sad about the loss of a wonderful human being.

That brings up the second issue.  My overall feeling about homeschooling is pretty unequivocal-- our only regret 99% of the time is, "Why didn't we do this sooner?"  However.  Though I know it seems like an argument in itself to say, "Well . . . out of 40+ teachers in your K12 career, only 7 were good . . . what does that say about the rest of your time???"  The reality is that my life would absolutely have been poorer had it not been for these 7 people.  And it isn't quite true that only 7 were good; there were 7 who I personally felt were outstanding for me.  Other students had other teachers who reached them in our district.  Some teachers who didn't connect so well with me, connected fabulously with other students.  One teacher who was definitely on my "could live without seeing him again" list is a favorite of some friends of mine.  Life is like that.  

So, on this day, I worry just a bit about what my kids may miss out on by homeschooling.  Who might their "7" have been?  What influence in their lives are they missing that I am not replacing, necessarily?  Am I robbing them of some type of transformative experience they might have had, had I chucked them at the local public school?  When interviewed about one of the books he has published, my husband noted that our high school English teacher was absolutely a key influence on his ability to write (she is also one of my "7"). 

I do realize that I am replacing the "school" experience with other experiences that they would not get if they were in school.  There are other mentors, other teachers, other classes we only do as homeschoolers-- we do not simply sit at home all day long.  But it is a less random situation than school.  Had my parents hand-picked my teachers, a few of my "7" would never have crossed my path, for certain.

I get nervous when I talk to homeschoolers who think that there is only one choice for schooling, that schools are 100% evil, that homeschooling is the only possible choice.  Whether we as parents choose to use homeschooling, public schooling, charter, schools, or private schools, we are tossing a dart in the dark about the experiences and influences our kids are going to have in their lives.  We are making choices that will have profound downstream influences.  Today, I feel a tremendous loss, from the loss of a human being who was a great educator.  I had that opportunity thanks to the public education that my parents selected for me (and select it they did; we moved out of the district where my Dad taught so that my siblings and I would not have to have him as a teacher, and my parents had their pick of districts to live in).  I would be foolish not to wonder what choices I am making for my children, via my choices, and to hope that one day they can feel the profound impact that some of these choices have had on their lives.  I hope I am making good choices for them, as my parents did for me.

Will they, through homeschooling, also find "a 7?"

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Checking in on the Science Front

I figured I would give an update on how our experiment with the science format is going.  In a phrase: beyond my best expectations.

I have been using the Prentice Hall Science Explorer series as an organizing spine, and for occasional inspiration to add to our labs and hands-on illustrations of concepts, and I am very pleased with these books as a spine for my logic and upper elementary stage sons.  As outlined in my prior blog post, we are organizing our science classes, held daily for 1-2 hours every other week, as follows: 

  • Monday: Mom-led discussion/lecture
  • Tuesday: Assiged reading with outlining/notetaking
  • Wednesday: lab day.  May include additional videos or internet resources, depending on time
  • Thursday: Additional reading
  • Friday: Student chosen projects-- each kid choses one idea or topic that caught their interest during the week, researches it or does an additional experiment, makes a presentation to teach the family about what they learn by the end of the day.
I was not really sure how well this plan would work out, or how well I would feel we had covered biology as a discipline-- it is my former professional field, so I feel passionate about it-- but thanks to our rotating math/science  history/language focus schedule, we only get 20-21 weeks to spend on it, and this plan allows us to only really cover about 16-18 topics, with the expectation that a few topics will require more than one week, but most will only get one week.  I could easily spend all year on any given topic.  My hope was that the Friday projects would catch some of what we have to leave out-- permitting the kids time to explore some of the bunny trails that catch their eyes and building in time for them to go explore.  But really-- only 16-18 topics?  That really makes me nervous.

We are now a few months into this experiment, and here is a glimpse into how our week worked:

Monday:  I prepared a discussion based on the Science Explorer text on the topic of mollusks, echinoderms, and arthropods.  We discussed the increasing complexity of body plans that we were encountering (previous weeks were devoted to worms, cnidarians, sponges, protistae, bacteria, etc).  We are adding more complex kidneys, starting to develop hearts, the segments of the body are starting to specialize, we are encountering organisms such as the squid that have some intelligence.  We experienced life without jointed appendages by casting our arms in cardboard and attempting to write, scratch our tummies, and punch our brothers.  We got out great-grandma's collection of real starfish, conch shells, seahorses, and other preserved sea life, and discussed exoskeletons vs endoskeletons, and chitin made of polymer chains vs calcium based endoskeletons.

Tuesday:  Lots of additional reading happened.  DS9 read selections from Lab of Mr.Q, Real Science Odyssey, Basher Biology, and Holt textbook.  He noted facts about each phylum and filled in body plan diagrams, noting the differences between arachnids and insects, and labeled snails and starfish.  DS11 read and outlined selections from Usborne that led him to  think about past lessons as well as this week's lesson, reading about different types of feeding, locomotion, and appendages.  He also had additional things to read, and kept up with his daily assignments from our trial run with Plato Life Sciences.  The goal for him, as a logic stage student, is to draw more connections between our lessons and see the bigger picture on one hand, but also to dig into more details and be more specific about what he is learning.  He also labeled diagrams of the different organisms, with a focus on the defining characteristics of each group.

Wednesday: Lab Day!  We grabbed the dissection kit for the first time, and finally ready to really wrap our heads around a discussion of body plan comparisons, we carefully worked our way through an earthworm, clam, grasshopper, crayfish, perch, and frog.  We finished just before lunchtime.  DS9 was ready to eat.  DS11 waited a little bit first.  

Thursday:  Extra reading day!  This day has proven to be pretty fun.  We watch videos on Discovery Education Streaming, and have extra reading.  This week, because of the variety of organisms we discussed, we opened up a National Geographic book on migrations.  DS9 read about monarch butterflies (insects are part of phylum arthropoda) jellyfish (a past topic) red crabs, army ants, and other creatures that migrate long distances.  DS11 had his own additional reading about the guys we've been discussing all week in our reference books that we stock in the house and the extras I had picked up from the library.  Both boys picked a topic to research for their independent topics on Friday.

Friday:  This week was really special.  Both boys have been really good at finding their topics to research each week, and that has been really exciting to see.  DS9 has always needed a bit of hand-holding, which is neither surprising nor inappropriate.  DS11 has been pretty independent about his projects, and picked a nice variety of topics.  This week, however, the boys just rocked it.  DS11 became interested in starfish digestion-- a cool example of finding a detailed item to dig into.  DS9, however, held our big surprise for the week.  He chose his topic--the red crab-- read our books on hand about it (starting with the migrations book) then went to the computer, where he figured out how to google his topic and filter out the appropriate links.  He made his way to two or three different articles about the red crab, read them and actually took notes on paper.  He then made his oral presentation, using only keyword notes from his paper, giving great details about the migration, feeding, reproduction, and nesting habits of the red crab.  I was thrilled.  

This far into the year, I am pleased with how the year is going.  No, we will not cover every topic I can think of-- we could study nothing but biology until they get married and still not manage that.  The two of them read different things, and they end up discussing their readings with each other, something I never schedule and they just do spontaneously, increasing the material covered, and the depth.  The Friday projects are giving them time to dig up more information, and better yet, related the lessons to things that they find interesting (can you imagine your school life, if one day per week was dedicated to letting you go explore topics that interested you as they related to your lessons?).  DS11 still thinks dissection is unbelievably icky.  That's okay.  He survived doing it (poor kid- wait until later this year when we cover anatomy and deal with the sheep's brain and heart, and the cow's eyeball . . .).  He's also learning there is a lot of other cool stuff to biology, so the course is not the nightmare he thought it would be, and he's actually enjoying himself (when we're not dissecting anything).

Best of all, I can see evidence before me that they are truly learning how to learn.  They are not merely passively accepting what I dump into their brains.  They are figuring out how to go find information, organize it, digest it, and give it to others, independently.  If we can keep that skill going all year, this year of biology will be a huge success, no matter what topics we exclude.  We simply cannot teach them everything, but if we help them figure out how to go learn and evaluate information for themselves, while still building a strong foundation, and help them develop a strong curiosity about the world, they will be well set.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Biology: Fostering Exploration in a Classical Model

Last year was our first full year of homeschooling, and we had a pretty successful year of science, studying chemistry and having a blast with a host of great experiments.  We primarily followed the formal laid out for us by NOEO Science levels 1 and 2, heavily padded with supplemental material that was not strictly needed, but a whole lot of fun.  However, for biology this year, I could not find any one pre-fabricated curriculum that entirely satisfied me.  

A former bench scientist (research assistant to an MD/PhD at a children's hospital) I was really looking forward to teaching biology to my kids this year, but every package I looked over either lacked something, didn't suit our highly custom schedule, didn't emphasize some area I felt was important, or was too superficial.  Finding curricula that sufficiently address evolution can be a challenge.  And, with a new 9YO and an 11 1/2 YO, I had a kid in grammar stage and a kid in logic stage, so I wanted something that I could both teach together, yet provide differentiated instruction easily.  Even some pretty good programs (such as NOEO and a few others) have differentiated levels, but the topics don't match up.

I finally realized I had to go with the obvious solution: make it up myself.  I'll spare you the tale of all the angst this decision caused.  Suffice it to say that teaching something you feel you know particularly well is not necessarily an easy thing to plan the first time you do it.  The temptation to want to teach everything you know in a limited amount of time is a battle that must be won before you can begin.

If someone reminds me, we can do an update/reveal on the comprehensive list of topics at the end of the year.  The most important bit of planning that occurred has been the structure of the course, and this is has both me and the kids the most excited.  Homeschooling should be an opportunity to explore interests and follow up on bunny trails, yet our particular brand of homeschooling is more of a classical model than and unschooling model.  I was looking to find a way of studying science this year that was a bit less rigid, yet preserved our overall philosophy of education.  Also in consideration is our unusual schedule; we only study science every other week, alternating an intensive study of science and math with a week focused intensively on language and history.  In a typical (for us) 42 week school year, this leaves only 20-21 weeks of biology, compared to the typical 36 week school year, though we may put in upwards of 10-12 hours in each of those weeks just for biology, per kid.

With two weeks of the new biology under our belts, the new model is working really well.  The kids, including Son#1, who has been dreading "the icky science" of Biology for a year now, has responded enthusiastically.  This is how it goes, with last week's lesson filled in as an example:

Monday: group discussion/mom led lecture

Introduction to cells: cell walls, cell membranes, cytoplasm, nuclear membranes, nucleus.  Small amount of biochemistry of cell membranes, homeostasis (tie in from prior week-- definition of life).  Discussion that not all of these elements are present in all cells.  Introduce main topic for the week, classification systems.  Why classify? (response of bacteria to different antibiotic classes, identification of new species, seeing relationships, organizing information, kids' ideas).  Present classification systems, overview.

Tuesday: individually assigned readings and outlining

DS9:  Mr.Q Science, SuperCharged Science.  Keyword Outline reading from Supercharged Science on classification.  Do Activity from SCS on choosing 5 animals, then using web link to research classification and information to see how related they are.  Try to pick animals he thinks are related and see how well he can do.  Look at Usborne RSO info.

DS11: Read Ellen McHenry info on cell membranes.  Outline classification scheme from Usborne.  Do unit from Plato Science.

Wednesday: lab

Start labs on cells, fungi, and bacteria.  Set wet bread crumbs in warm place and in fridge, check on every day to see if they have different results.  Play with Yeast.  In shot glasses, add yeast to: warm water and sugar, cold water and sugar, warm water and no sugar, cold water and no sugar.  What happens?  Mix warm water, yeast, and sugar in a test tube, shake up.  Put balloon over top of test tube.  What happens?  Why?  **Make sure we have chicken broth, agar, petri dishes, abx for labs for next time.

Thursday: additional reading (no outlining; notes/pictures encouraged)

Normally, additional reading material is assigned here on the topic.  We had an unplanned day off from school though.  Life happens.

Friday: Each child picks one idea or fact they learned during the week to find out more about. They may use our myriad in-house resources, the Internet, or our Friday library time. It does not need to be on the main topic. They make an outline, take notes, draw a picture, make a PowerPoint, do a project or start an additional experiment, and orally present their new information and why it was exciting to the rest of us.

DS9:  DS9 was very excited about poison dart frogs that he read about during his exercise on Tuesday on the web site.  This was fair game, so he went ahead and read more about them in books we had around the house and on the internet.  He drew a picture and wrote a keyword outline, then taught us about them. He was very excited to get to pick something that HE was interested in to learn all about for science class!  He even included the classification information, and showed what poison dart frogs had in common-- and how they were different from-- different animals we were more familiar with, such as having a backbone.

DS11: From the first day's lecture, DS11 was very interested in knowing more about this "cytoplasm" stuff, and did not wait until Friday to start researching it on the internet.  By Friday, he was ready to give a short presentation on Cytoplasm, and was pleased to tell us what he had learned so far.

I am hoping that over the course of a year, we will see their research skills grow and become more refined.  At this point, I am happy that they are excited about finding information-- at 9 and 11, I don't expect a 20-page dissertation from either of them.  I am happy enough to see them using more than one source of information, writing down where they found the information, and enthusiastic about learning more about something they have read about or heard me say.

I am pretty pumped about this format for science for the year.  Other books we have on hand range from the Prentice-Hall Science Explorer series, to various iterations of the Holt Biology texts, to more fun titles such as "Have a Nice DNA!" and "Enjoy Your Cells!"  We have books on Wilderness Survival, First Aid for Kids, Animal poop and tracks, Genetics, Gregor Mendel, Animal Migration, Habitats, Tree Identification, Sex, Reproduction, and more.  We have a sheep's heart to dissect, a sheep's brain, a cow's eyeball, a worm, a fish, a frog, a starfish, owl pellets, and more; we have a good microscope and ponds nearby, single celled critters to grow, agar and petri dishes.  We have celery and food dye (can anyone escape childhood without doing THAT experiment?? I think not).  We have water and soil test kits, pH indicators, lab coats and goggles.  We have instructions for dissecting a chicken wing to see how different muscles make the wing extend and retract (muscles only pull; they never push).  We have models of teeth, x-rays of the entire human body, and models to create of how lungs work.

I think we'll get the basic facts down that educated kids need to obtain in these years through the discussion sections, reading, and note taking.  The labs should introduce basic skills and generate interest, and reinforce learning.  Additional reading should hopefully generate interest and assist with longer term memory of what we cover, and the personal projects each week should give them a chance to explore topics we don't have time to cover in 20 weeks of intensive study, and give them a sense of control in studying some of what they wish to study just because it interests them.  And hopefully having that emotional investment in the learning process will also help aid retention of the information.  Getting to present their personal projects also provides a forum in which to wrap up the week and set an example of discussion of academic topics.

Just one month ago, I was kind of overwhelmed by the thought of teaching a year of biology to my kids-- what if I took the subject I love most and really, really messed it up???  Now that we have this model down, I'm just pumped.  I think science will be really exciting this year, for all three of us.

--Thanks for reading!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Homeschooling and Supervision: a Sticky Debate

Raise your hand if you are a homeschooler, and have fielded a question along the lines of: 

  • So, the state supervises your homeschooling, right?
  • So who approves your curriculum?
  • You have to submit a portfolio and test scores, right?
  • You have to have a teaching license, right?
  • How can you teach if you don't know how?
  • You have to have mandatory testing and submit test scores to your local school, right?
  • How does your state make sure you are really doing your job?  I would think a lot of homeschoolers could fail to get an education!
  • etc
Raise your hand if you are not a homeschooler, but have ever had a question along those lines.

I bet there are a LOT of hands up in the air.

I recently read an article about homeschooling (and responded to a comment, something I rarely do, since most people in that situation are generally just airing their views rather than looking to have a conversation) and it made me think once again about the thorny question about homeschooling and curriculum/results regulation.

The overwhelming majority of the homeschoolers with whom I am acquainted do an amazing job of educating their children-- to the point where state standards are completely irrelevant, because their children vastly outpace them.  Virtually 100% of us have had our friends and family question our ability to homeschool, and fielded concerned questions about whether we have someone peeking over our shoulders to make sure we are doing a good job, on the assumption that we are probably failing in some regard, because we are not "professionals," or that we are too emotionally attached to our kids to be objective, or don't have the knowledge base to teach them, or because schools test, and therefore it must be a good idea, etc etc etc.  

The problem that arises for me is this.  I am so glad that I home educate in a state that is virtually free of state oversight.  Our schools were doing my children a vast disservice (see my earlier posts, "Journey toward Homeschooling, 1 & 2).  In a nutshell, my younger son was in a remedial math program due to his dysgraphia, which was not being addressed at all, and his giftedness (including in mathematics) was being ignored.  I was told he would never read with much comprehension-- he just devoured Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, at the wise old age of 8.  He routinely compares different variations of literature that he has read, carrying out compare/contrast studies of Arthurian legends and Homeric translations, not to mention starting to read and write both Latin and German, and beginning to learn some vocabulary in Spanish.  He is devouring complex area and perimeter problems, solving mixed number fraction problems in his head, and doing basic algebra.  I am glad that the people who had him in remedial second grade math and pegged as a non-reader just over a year ago are not in charge of telling me what to do with him.  I don't want those people anywhere near my kids' education.  I want to plan history and science according to my own schedule, teach health on my own timetable and in my own way, which will undoubtedly be far superior to anything taught in the schools, and without question be taught in a way that makes more sense.  We start languages and instrumental music earlier as well.


I know there are people out there who are not doing a fantastic job with their kids.  I think it is a societal problem when kids are not receiving an adequate education.  It is unfair to the kids, too; who can look out for their interests if Mom and Dad fail them?  Wouldn't some kind of state accountability protect them somehow?

But would it?

I look to the public schools for an answer there, and that is where things would become rather unfair for homeschoolers; it would subject them to a standard that even the public schools do not meet.  In our state, the public schools are failing our kids at horrific rates.  Overall graduation rates are shockingly low.  Graduation rates for special education students are at or below 60%, less for non-whites.  Students who meet proficiency standards in the tenth grade in both reading and math are rare.  Why should homeschoolers stand out as a group that needs monitoring and needs to meet certain standards, when our public schools do not do so themselves?  

Further, I posit that the student whose parents are neglecting his home education just might fall into that same low category if placed in the public school.  Our public schools are staffed with teachers who often care and do a fine job with the tools they are given.  One tool teachers are not given, and is not within their control, is support from home.  If you take a child away from home education and plunk him into a public school, but he still lacks support for school attendance, assignment completion, educational expectations for high achievement, and parent/teacher communication, that student's chances of success remain infinitesimally small.  You do not change the environment or the parents by simply changing the student's study location.  Students fail in public schools every single day-- millions of them across the country.

Given the vast benefits of educational and curricular freedom, I cannot find a compelling case for educational oversight of homeschooling at this time.  The public schools have a tough enough time taking care of the students they already enroll.  In some states, oversight is provided by teachers, many of whom are already overburdened, though they may benefit from getting some great ideas from homeschoolers; that could well be a symbiotic relationship.  However, given the time drain for both the parent teacher and the public teacher, one that is more trouble than positive over the long haul-- consider the time spent assembling, presenting, discussing, and reviewing portfolios, not to mention driving to meetings, that could have been spent actually teaching new material or planning.  In some cases, the oversight involves maintaining state standards that are irrelevant to homeschoolers, who have already exceeded those standards in many cases.

If it were the case that public school children were all receiving a stellar education, and home schooled children were singularly at risk for receiving a sub-par education, I would concede the need for some regulation.  However the statistics on public education reveal that to not be the case.  There is clearly no magic in attending public school; some are fantastic, many are not.  There are great teachers, okay teachers, and terrible teachers.  Sending a kid back to public school is simply no promise that he will receive a stellar education.  Home educating is similarly no guarantee of a superior education, but neither is it any riskier than the alternative, and therefore it does not need special supervision by those who may have failed the child being home educated in the first place.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I Would Have had a Middle School Kid as of Monday, and I'm Okay With That . . . I Think . . .

     Back to school time has arrived in our county, and pretty much everyone we know of Facebook posted smiling kid pictures, children posing in new clothes, new haircuts, smiling faces, with new backpacks, new shoes, and new hopes for the coming school year.  I wished them all well, and thought, "Aaaaah . . . we still get to sleep in most mornings!  No school bus scramble!"

     Well, I mostly thought that.  There was one, small pang.  Many posts from my contemporaries noted that they had a son or daughter making a major step forward in life: a first day of either middle or high school.  I looked at those photos, and marveled at these strange, grown-up looking kids, ready to head off to lockers, changing classes, and new adventures, and had to admit that I felt a small loss.

     My older son, had he remained in public school, would have set off for his first day of sixth grade this past Monday, and begun that rite of passage known as middle school.  This is a rite of passage he will never experience.  Many homeschoolers turn their noses up at this notion, but I am not among them; my middle school experiences were not the muddle of horror that many describe.  Our school was not so bad; most of our teachers cared, and a few were even pretty good.  My former 7th grade math teacher is now the principal.  One of my former school mates is now a math teacher there.  We still live not all that far from that school, and could theoretically move there if we wanted to do so.  Middle school would not necessarily have to be a horror.  But my son will not experience it, at least in a school building.  We have elected to opt out of that experience, in exchange for what we view to be the benefits of homeschooling.

     I was a little startled when I showed my husband a photo of a friend's daughter, celebrating her first day of high school, and remembering when we took a group trip to Washington, DC about nine years ago, and all the kids were so small; my oldest was a mere toddler, and this beautiful, mature-looking ninth-grader would have been about five or six years old.  He made the comment that echoed my feelings:  that there was a small sense of loss that we don't have a picture to commemorate our son's entrance into middle school, because he is not doing so.

     In a few days, this too shall pass.  We have continued with school throughout the summer, so we are not experiencing a transition for back to school time; we are merely experiencing a transition of our friends not being around when the kids are finished with their school work during the day or when we take the occasional day off (something we can afford to do, as we completed 42 full weeks of school last year after all days off were accounted for).  We enjoy having the pool to ourselves, having our choice of seating in the theater, enjoying Longwood Gardens during the day without crowds, and other perqs.  However, I would be lying if I pretended that we had not noticed the passing of this missed milestone for us.

For everything you gain, there are often things that you do give up along the way.


Monday, May 21, 2012

Math by the Seat of Your Pants

I often hear from people and see message board posts from others who get frustrated about how to teach young kids math, and although I understand why-- many, many people do not have happy memories of math from their own childhoods-- I have to say, math is a source of a lot of fun for my grammar stage (generally K--4) Son#2.  Why?  The concepts at this stage are so readily presented in a concrete, almost game-based form, and discussing the math in this format before getting down to the text/workbook lesson is just so much fun.  I don't have some magic resource for our games and ideas (other than a few that came from the Life of Fred Elementary series, a very fun way of approaching math during these years).  Mostly I look at the textbook-- for us that is Singapore Math, US Edition-- and let it inspire me.  I often do not have a plan before we sit down; I just let stuff happen.  It seems to work pretty well.

One new inspiration happened today.  We were reviewing factoring, and the textbook had arrays of pictures to illustrate various numbers.  We happened to have a set of several pipe cleaners on the table, so I grabbed them, and challenged DS2 to use them to illustrate different ways to factor the various arrays.  He illustrated the factors of different numbers several different ways, and despite a week's vacation from the previous lesson, he had the concept down pat in about two minutes (but kept playing with the idea for several more just for fun).

I have collected here some prior ideas that I have posted in various message boards; they're easier to locate here than buried as post#20 in thread#403,455,786,778 :).  These are all real activities that "just happened" for us at one time or another:

  • One day we were reviewing, and I opened up the fraction stacks and c-rods (Cuisinaire Rods-- in our case, unmarked wooden rods cut to different unit-lengths and each length colored a particular color; Fraction Stacks are marked and sectioned, and stack, connecting to one another) and told DS8 to just play for a bit. Then I asked him to find the sum of 1/4 and 1/2 using the stacks. He messed around, then swapped out the 1/2 block for 2 - 1/4 blocks and came up with 3/4. We got tougher and added 2/12 plus 1/3 plus 1/4 and he did the same thing eventually, swapping out all blocks for the correct number of twelfths blocks, and then figuring out how to simplify 9/12 to 3/4 by swapping them back out with the quarter blocks.
  • We did similar things with compare the fractions exercises-- what is bigger-- 2/8 or 1/6? Make a prediction, then compare. Can we simplify 2/8? Oh yeah, 2/8 = 1/4! Of course 1/4 is bigger than 1/6! It means one whole was only cut into four pieces!
  • We have used C-Rods to imitate the bar diagrams Singapore uses to solve its word problems.
  • Place a long stick (Tinker Toys work well!) across a plastic clock face to demonstrate quarters, halves, or thirds, and relate it to telling time. Cut out matching fraction shapes from paper plates to cover parts of the clock face to illustrate further if needed.
  • Measures are easier still... Grab measuring cups and rulers, and pour spill and measure and compare everything in your house. Do it before opening the book.
  • Area... Get those blocks back out (on a smaller scale, you can use the c-rods again). Use the square blocks as a unit block to figure out the area of different composite and rectangular shapes you create, and to measure their perimeter. Measure them with a ruler. Can you find a rule?
  • Adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing-- put a giant stack of crayons or colored pencils or pennies or Legos or Playmobil guys or M&M's to great use. Take a page out of Life of Fred: Apples. If you have a pile of 7 (or any other smallish number), how many ways can you divide them up to add up to 7? How about cool numbers like 12 or 24? Can you find all the factors? Can you find common factors?
  • Collect stacks of coins or other differentiated counters, or make your own. Model Singapore's picture models-- ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, etc, and do calculations with them to understand why there is no "Borrowing," but instead "Redistributing" or as we like to call it, "Busting open" or "Tying back up." It will never be more clear why 5 ones and 5 ones make 10 ones, or one ten.

Singapore says upfront it starts with concrete. You have to provide the concrete as the flesh and blood teacher.  If you find coming up with ideas to be a challenge, there are Home Instructor Guides available to provide those ideas.  Let your child explore the idea first, then provide some guidance. Let him explore some more, the let him answer some questions and gain confidence in the idea with the manipulatives. When the lightbulb goes on, then it's time to get out the book.

You can always leave the toys out for them to explore on their own later. You may be pleasantly surprised at what creative ideas they come up with on their own. Or, your child may simply build a house out of the C-Rods, and that's okay too :)

--Thanks for Reading!


Shakespeare, on Homeschooling

Just for fun

Here in this island we arriv'd, and here
Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit
Than other princess' can, that have more time
For vainer hours, and tutors not so careful.

"Heavens thank you for't!"

(Prospero, stranded on an island with his daughter for twelve years at this point with his daughter Miranda and the monster Caliban, reflects upon the benefits of homeschooling)

--The Tempest, Act I, scene ii
Thank you to L. Nick Trefethen and the wonderful Kate for the reference!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Homeschooler's Handbag

I am quite sure I would never have predicted that I would choose to blog the contents of my purse.  Maybe once, long ago when my kids were babies or toddlers, but that would have been a(n all too brief) passing fancy.  You see, I don't really even think of myself as a "purse" kinda gal much of the time; if I can fit what I need for a shopping trip into my pockets, off I go unencumbered, no worries about leaving that dang thing that always falls off of my shoulder anyway behind somewhere.

However, with homeschooling, we often have a bit more than I can jam into my jeans pockets or even a coat pocket, and the purse has been coming along, if I can get away with less than a backpack.  My Mom gave me a nice Stone Mountain bag, and it's a nice intermediate step without being a shoulder suitcase.  Today we headed out for an afternoon at the rec center for swimming, karate, and gymnastics and a little change of scenery work zone, and as I started pulling out some work for Son#2, I looked again at my bag and realized its contents probably did not match up well with the handbags of the other moms sitting nearby.

So, keeping in mind that this is not a large bag, but is owned by a person whose family used to pack 2 adults, 3 children, a tank of goldfish, and a very large dog, and everything we needed for a 3 month summer on the family farm into a Plymouth Valiant, here is what is packed into one Stone Mountain handbag on a random day for an afternoon outing:

  •  Today's newspaper, for discussing current events
  • Learning Latin Through Mythology, for a fun supplemental exercise for today
  • Pages from Lively Latin 1, because Son#1 didn't finish that yet today (history/language focus week)
  • Notebooking paper in case we need to write anything down that we talk about or someone wants to journal
  • Workbook for R&S Grammar 3, because Son#2 didn't finish that yet today
  • Coolidge's Caesar's Gallic War, in case Son#1 wants to read
  •  Polland's Beorn the Proud, in case Son#2 wants to read
  • Nook, in case I want to read
  • Wipes, in case we stop and picnic somewhere or just have a mess to clean up.
  • Roger Lancelyn Green's The Adventures of Robin Hood, so we can finish our Group Reading
  • Tissues
  • Photo album (just found this!  It's been in there for years!)
  • ipod touch, ipad, checkbook (wrote 3 checks last year!  Woot!)
  • 3 mechanical pencils and 2 pens.
  • 1 small legal notebook for my notes in case batteries go out on electronics
  •  Plastic baggies for random samples during walks and excursions (rocks, flowers, bugs . . . )
  • Dental floss.  Usual uses, plus more--- you'd be surprised.

Next week I am sure it will change (heck, it will probably change tomorrow) as next week is science and math focus week, so you're more likely to find a Singapore workbook and something related to chemistry or a copy of Usborne's Easy German in there, depending upon the day of the week or the time of day.  

So now I ask the question:  What ends up in your purse that marks you as a homeschooler, either routinely, or when you're just "going mobile?"

--Thanks for Reading!

PS:  I have not forgotten to write my "Race to Nowhere" post.  It's coming, I promise!
PPS:  No, I will not weigh this handbag on a scale.  Anyone reporting this post to my physical therapist will be set Latin declinations and sentence diagrams in three languages before they can say, "traction."

Saturday, February 11, 2012


My friend Natalie and I have been planning a screening for the documentary film Race to Nowhere for some time now.  Funny that the one we chose to attend happened to fall during this week.

Looking ahead to our schedule, I checked the calendar, and noticed it looked . . . a tad packed.  Some things couldn't really be helped.  There were five (count'em!) doc appointments that couldn't really be put off.  Son#2, our resident artist, had a one-off 90-minute art class for homeschoolers at Longwood Gardens.  I could have canceled that commitment, but didn't really wish to do so.  We had gym class, swimming, gymnastics, karate, and fencing all at our regular times, plus our weekly library trip.  I had my ironic trip to see Race to Nowhere Wednesday night.  We had other commitments lined up as well.

If you read last week's blog, you'll notice we are not casual homeschoolers; people who think homeschoolers "do school" in 90 minutes a day or less are not thinking about our family.  Occasionally we bend to get around an appointment here or there, but this week was looking a bit extraordinary.  Four thoughts occurred to me.  
  1. If we attempted to put in a regular school week, I would stress myself out
  2. If we attempted to put in a regular school week, I would stress the kids out
  3. If we attempted to put in a regular school week, I would stress my husband out
  4. If we attempted to put in a regular school week, I would be setting everyone up to fail.
Number four above felt particularly unacceptable.
What's a homeschool Mom to do?  Just a few weeks out from a pretty generous Christmas break (2 1/2 weeks?  3?) it was too early for a full-on vacation, and if I tried to call this kind of a week a "vacation," the kids would cry foul-- there was too much running around.  But getting in a half-hearted attempt at school didn't work for me.  Enter the "Fake-Cation!"

Analyzing the schedule, I noticed everything was clustered on Tuesday and Thursday, or Monday and Wednesday evenings.  Monday morning, the kids woke up, expecting a regular school week, and instead found this note on the kitchen table:

Welcome to Fake-cation

1.  You may read or play what you wish until Mommy is finished with her shower and breakfast.
2.  No regular school books this week.  You may leave them put away.
3.  This week we will spend:
  • some time on "special projects"
  • some time cleaning up the house together
  • some time at doc appointments, classes, and errands
  • the rest of your time is free play time.  This time may be academic-related or not-- it's you're choice.
And then the fun began!

Son#2 watches Son#1 make the first cuts in their 3-hole miniature golf course, under construction.
Son#1 files down his work while Son#2 creates pilot holes for drilling.

Son#2's turn to man the drill.  There are still many steps to go here, but you get the idea.  So much for my constant indignant insistence that homeschoolers never lock their kids away in the basement <grin>.
Longwood Gardens' meadow is beautiful in winter, too.  Son#1 and I had 90 rare minutes to ourselves while Son#2 took an art class for homeschoolers.  I guess we do get out of that basement.

Proving we let Son#1 out of the basement once in a while.  He's enjoying being 11, outdoors at Longwood with Mom!
Okay, back home, time for fun science.  Hint number one:  it floats in water . . . 
Hint number two: It turns into a fluffy souffle in the microwave!  Why does this famous soap behave like this?  (Look!  Kitchen, not basement!)
Son#2 built a circuit, and now turns a hand crank to start charging his rechargeable battery, verifying with the LED light that he's cranking fast enough, and checking the battery's voltage using the Volt/Amp meter.  (Dining room now.  Still no basement).*

Not pictured, is cute video of Sons 1 & 2 attempting to blow up a 10' long balloon made from Diaper Genie refill tied off at one end . . . and Mom proving she can do it in ONE breath (thank you Steve Spangler Science) and wonderful jumping cups (thank you to Rob Krampf's Happy Scientist and a great discussion of the scientific process, rather than the usual demonstration masquerading as a lab).  We worked in Brain Pop videos, which were a first for us, the coin-toss flash card game, reading as usual, and our usual karate, gymnastics, homeschool gym class, fencing, library time, chores, and game/play time, on top of our usual dose of Minecraft, and still had time to dote on a very welcome visitor from across the country. 

Oh, right!  Son#1 brought his camera along to Longwood too.  He's never owned a camera before, so these are among his first-ever pictures.  I only gave him minimal coaching, and told him to take pictures that show how he views the world as an 11-year-old:

 There you have it.  Son#1's first ever photo display.  You can say you knew him when.

Watching the Race to Nowhere (upcoming Blog: A Homeschooler's Response to R2N) in the midst of all of this was an interesting experience, and it absolutely validated my choice to back off and have some fun with the kids this week.  Particularly given that we homeschool year round, we had the time to spare from formal studies.  It's roughly six weeks until my husband's spring break, so the timing is right for a mini-break, but only a few weeks in from Christmas, we weren't quite ready for a complete vacation.  And although my kids do enjoy learning our traditional way, this week reminded them that we can keep on learning even when we're really having fun.

I think everything we did this week was actually important, and an important part of their growing up.  I'm glad we had this week.  I'm glad Son#1 gets to be there for Son#2's neurology appointments; it helps to make him a better big brother and bonds them more closely together, as well as helping him understand his little brother's challenges, smaller though they are becoming, that much better.  I'm glad we can take a week to focus on woodworking, circuitry, "fun" science that wasn't necessarily planned to the teeth, and just being outdoors.  I'm glad Son#1, who thinks of himself as completely non-artistic (and are we partly at fault for that?  Do we word things around the house that way sometimes?  Perhaps?) got to experiment with a new expressive medium.  Everyone needs one, whether it be through words, pictures, dance, or whatever. 

This week was in its own way, just as big a part of their education as the usual weeks filled with Latin and grammar and chemistry.  All of that NEEDS to be balanced with play. That was a major point of Race to Nowhere-- it's important for children to not lose themselves, their sense of who they really are-- in some quest to become whatever it is they think their parents want them to become.  More on that next time.

--Thanks for Reading!

*For those of you lost about why I keep on with the in the basement/not in the basement references, I recently had yet another run-in with a well-meaning but clueless individual who was "concerned about socialization" of my homeschoolers.  I didn't have time to answer them very thoroughly, sadly.  We were too busy running off to activities with other children, of mixed ages, genders, and backgrounds to spend time justifying ourselves . . . if I thought the person was actually open-minded enough to really listen rather than just wanting to expound their own point of view, I might have invited them for a ride-along to meet some actual real-life homeschoolers and see what a day is like . . . 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Schedule Scramble: Listening to the Kids

Some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the kids approached me with an idea: break up our subjects into different blocks of time instead of studying “everything” each week.  I was skeptical.  This is not exactly a new idea, and other home schoolers do exactly this type of plan quite successfully, of course.  But . . . was it right for MY kids?  Could it really work, or would it just feel too fragmented?  I didn’t really think it was a great idea.  I let the idea percolate.

I thought about what the kids were saying.  I looked at our schedule.  We are studying a lot of stuff, for ages 8 and 10.  A lot.  My expectations are quite high.  Trying to cram all of it into every.single.week. might be a lot to ask at ages 8 and 10.  So instead of their suggestion, did I need to take stock of the overall curriculum?  What should we drop?  Well .  . .  looking it over . . . nothing.  I liked our plan.  Most of the “optional” stuff was stuff we were only doing once or twice a week, and was stuff they really enjoyed (ie computer programming, mind bender puzzles).  Hmmmm.

I continued to  mull it over through the Christmas holidays, and came back around to the suggestion the kids had made.  What would be the effects of it?  5 day per week subjects might move more slowly.  Two day per week subjects might move more quickly.   With fewer things to focus on in each week, we could go into more depth in each thing, tie them together better, and spend more time, or opt for shorter days on some days, as circumstances required.  Hmmm.  The kids idea might have some merit.  We could always go back to the old schedule if the continuity issue resulted in problems.  And they would feel more invested in their school process.  Okay, let’s give this a shot.  So . . . what does the new schedule look like, and how does it feel, a month into the rotation?

Science and Math Focus Week

DS (now 11) works on:
chemistry (primarily NOEO level2, plus the texts from RS4K, KOGS from RS4K, Happy Scientist videos, ScienceWiz kits, Some Ellen McHenry Units, Some information from BFSU, Lab of Mr. Q, and some others, all as I can weave them into the NOEO spine to keep the coherent order to things)
math (primarily Life of Fred PreAlgebra, with some work in Art of Problem Solving as a light supplement—LoF is definitely our spine in math though—with some Khan Academy and living books tossed into the mix as well)
 logic (KidCoder computer programming, Mind Benders and Critical Thinking pages from The Critical Thinking Co)
Music and Art (Trumpet practice, Mark KistlerArt, Classics for Kids Podcasts, Art KOGS, and other activities)
writing (Unjournaling on Friday, typing practice with TypetoLearn4)
German (Rosetta Stone, Usborne Easy German, Pokemon Videos, Other activities.  Not trying to be stereotyped here, just separating the two languages in different weeks)
 Reading (min 45 minutes self-reading per day, plus group read-aloud of literature per day above and beyond his self-choice reading time)
Geography (ongoing project to learn to map each continent by heart; review world map on Friday).  
 **All subjects are daily, except for writing (typing is twice per week,  Unjournaling only on Friday), Logic (Mind Benders are a Monday wake-up), Music and Art (different activities except trumpet practice are spread through the week).

DS8 works on the same subjects, but in different, age-appropriate programs.  
 He focuses on Singapore math (US Edition) as is his spine, with Life of Fred Elementary as a fun supplement (though we are pretty pleasantly surprised at just how MUCH math is packed into those books!  If you skim them or read them fast, you’ll miss it; if you take your time, there is pretty advanced stuff in there!) as well as Khan Academy and some other fun stuff.   
He also does NOEO Chemistry, but at level 1, with the same chem supplements as his older brother, minus the KOGS.  There is nothing wrong with NOEO; we’re just a little science crazy in our house!   
For Logic skills, he hasn’t starting programming quite yet, but loves the Mind Benders, Ken-Ken, Sudoku, and other types of puzzles.   
His musical instrument is the recorder, but the otherwise does the same music and art activities as his brother.
  He also does Unjournaling and typing for writing this week.  
 He works at Rosetta Stone for German quite successfully; I love how easily they pick up the grammar and spelling from that program!  At 8 years old, though he does work through it at a slower pace and goes back and repeats some lessons, and I sit with him and guide him through the worksheets.   
 His self-reading time is supposed to be 30 minutes, but he often sneaks in much more, and has to be told to put the book down and work on some of his other work, and naturally group reading time includes him as well.
He practices mapping the same way as DS11 for geography.

History and Language Focus Week

For H&L week, DS11 works on 
history (HistoryOdyssey Ancients 2, plus much extra reading (he makes great use of the library and his new Nook Simple Touch!) and any extra activities, trips, or movies I can dream up, plus the mapping project)  
Latin (Big Book of Lively Latin I, Latin Crossword Puzzles, Visual Latin, and a variety of activities); 
vocabulary (Vocabulary Workshop)  
music and art (same as in Science and Math Week)  
Writing (Writing With Ease, plus writing from history program, and typing)
grammar (was GrowingWith Grammar, now Grammarlogues)
reading (same as Science and Math Week)
math (A lighter schedule than during Science and Math week, with LoF on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Khan Academy on Tuesday, and Alcumus on Thursday).

DS8 again follows a similar plan, but in an age and skill appropriate manner.  
I decided to hit Ancients and Medieval history with him this year, so he has finished History Odyssey Ancients 1 and is now in History Odyssey Middle Ages 1.  It’s a good thing he loves to read, because there is a lot of fun stuff for him to read now!   
He is nearly finished with Prima Latina, and will soon begin   The Big Book of Lively Latin like big brother.  There will be a small amount of repetition, but at his age, that is a good thing.  
He studies spelling with Spelling Workout rather than vocabulary, at this age, concentrating on natural vocabulary development.  
Like DS11, music and art are unchanged from science and math week.   
Writing consists of Writing With Ease and typing lessons, as well as anything he needs to write to summarize history lessons.  I still help him by scribing a lot of history, but we stop and discuss sentence structure, using specific words instead of general words (names instead of “those guys,” for example), and other details.  Typing is also done twice per week.  
 Grammar continues our experiment with the definitely non-secular but very solid Rod & Staff.  
As with DS11, reading is the same as the prior week, with the minimum self-reading time set at 30 minutes for an 8YO, though he frequently exceeds it.  For History and language focus week, Singapore math is only completed on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; on Tuesday, he does some type of playful math, and on Thursday he works on Khan Academy.  He works in Life of Fred (elementary series) whenever he has time, just because he’s a fan of Fred J.  By the end of this year, he will have completed 2 years of Singapore math, a year of Math Mammoth, many topics in Khan, and learned a tremendous amount from Fred, so dialing math back every other week doesn’t particularly bother me.

So, how’s that working for you?

First of all, the kids have been highly gratified that I took their suggestion seriously and really listened.  They understand that trying this schedule out does not mean we will keep it, but they appreciate being heard.  That said, I think they are really on to something here.

A month into this experiment, I think we are all less stressed out, are exploring each subject more deeply, feeling less rushed and more flexible about our daily schedule, and more able to explore any side trails that pop up and become interesting.  I have had buckets of additional “extras” that I have been wanting to add in to their studies to either make them more interesting or more memorable, and I feel more able to just add things in now, because we are cramming less into each day, and each day flows more naturally into the next than it did when we tried to do Chemistry on M-W-F and History on T-R.  I found a great book of English to Latin Crossword puzzles on Amazon, and we try one of those out each week.  We have time.  I found some Pokemon movies in German, and we have time to sit and watch them together .  . . what a difference to watch something in the language you are studying, instead of just conversing about who is eating rice or wearing the green shirt or riding the large horse!  I feel free to schedule a day to just sit and read extra folk tales from the period of history we are studying, or to put the brakes on somebody who is moving ahead too fast for comprehension to sink in, and say, “Nope, let’s not move ahead yet; let’s master this first!”  It doesn’t break the flow to do so. 

Next week is supposed to be science and math week.  I have decided, looking at our schedule of various appointments, that we will take a Fakation instead.  That’s half days of educational activities not using our usual materials and curricula, followed by half days “off” for the kids, when we aren’t at some kind of appointment.  The week after that will be Science and Math Focus Week, business as usual, nothing missed, and we’ll then roll onward until my husband’s spring break, nearly 2 months.

Kids have good ideas.  Even though we are in charge, and responsible for the decision and outcomes, it’s still a good idea to listen and take them seriously.  

So, let me know:  What different kinds of schedules have you tried, and how have they worked out?  I am sure that as we grow, gain experience, and evolve, different option will continue to present themselves with varying degrees of success-- I'd love to hear some of your experiences with scheduling trials and tribulations, and success stories!

--Thanks for reading!

 PS:  Okay, I got the links up.  In many cases, I tried to make them more useful by linking directly to a specific book or portion of the curriculum to which I was referring.  However, this increases the likelihood of broken links as various publishers revise their web pages.  If a link breaks, just let me know, and I'll hunt down the new one and fix it!  --NJ

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Patience and Persistence

     Caught up in the day-to-day business of homeschooling, enjoying the little victories and successes large and small, it is easy to sometimes lose the big picture in the overwhelming jangle of incremental changes.  Such loss can sometimes breed insecurity for the home educating parent, who does not necessarily have an objective backup, or outside evaluation of how the kids are faring.  It is easy to stride confidently forth in areas where you know your little geniuses naturally excel, but what about those areas where they are just average or (gasp) perhaps even struggling?  What then?

     We began our homeschooling journey just under a year ago (mid-February for DS2, end of February for DS1) with some areas of strength, but also some areas where I had serious concern for each boy, and I wasn't really sure what I was going to do about it.  For DS2 in particular, I had concerns in the area of writing.  Far above grade level in every subject area, writing, for some reason I could not fathom, was far below.  A voracious reader, he possessed an outstanding vocabulary, grasp of grammar, and facility for spelling.  A sensitive and creative mind seemed capable of spinning endless stories and tales at the dinner table, synthesizing stories and novels and themes and turning them on their heads in ways that left us wondering.  Yet when asked to put pencil to paper or even to dictate his thoughts to be transcribed, he suddenly descended down to the level of Dick and Jane.

     We began with one recommended program, Writing Strands, that seemed to make a lot of sense to me.  It still does.  It broke the process of writing down into pieces, then built it back up, in a very logical way.  I started him back a couple of grade levels, figuring we could accelerate appropriately as his skill level dictated.  I still think it is a good program; it just didn't work for DS1.  He would insist he had NO ideas, even given the very leading prompts in the book.  Time to ditch, after just a few weeks.  I kept the books though, in case they came in handy later.

     So now, what to do?  Back to the drawing board.  All the way back.  I grabbed a program that focused on zero original productivity at first.  Zero.  The theory seems to be that it makes no sense to ask kids to write original material until after they have been taught to write, and spent a significant amount of time being exposed very closely to high quality writing, examining that writing, working up the connections between forming a sentence in their heads and holding it there long enough for it to emerge from their pencils onto the paper (using a prefab sentence) and then looking at a longer piece of writing, being taught to understand the difference between the details and the important stuff, and how to summarize the important stuff and write it down (at first, by dictating it to an adult who writes it down; writing it down themselves comes much, much later).  Addressing severally and sequentially examples of excellent writing intentionally, the neurology of writing, the physical mechanics of writing (kids sometimes have a problem because hands get tired) and the mental organization of writing (getting several ideas organized at once, then writing) makes sense to me.  I decided to give Susan Wise Bauer's Writing With Ease a try, and as my super-bright ten-year-old was struggling so much with writing, I went ahead and started him in  . . . level One.  As in, the level many people use for their six, seven, or eight year olds.  Now, we did work at an accelerated pace.  In WWE, each lesson is broken up across four days, with one day "off" each week in a typical usage pattern.  We did one "week" of work each day, completing a lesson per day, four days per week, and in just over half a year, moved through books one and two, and have begun book three just recently.

     Okay, say that again?  I started my kid, whom in public school we were seriously considering bumping him up a grade so that right now, he would actually be a sixth grader, in the first grade book???  Yes, I did.  He needed it.  But, here's the problem.  On a daily basis, we were copying sentences from great books.  I was giving him dictation from great books (and adding some terrific books to our future reading list).  He was getting better at summarizing the main points of a story, leaving out trivial details, and at responding to questions in complete sentences comfortably.  BUT was his writing improving measurably?  Without asking him to do any really meaningful writing, how could I even tell?  On a daily basis in our history program, the simple fact was: I could not tell.  For all I knew, he enjoyed the program because it wasn't stressing him out too much.  However, having already jumped ship from one writing program, and having thought through and bought into the ideas behind this writing program, I was willing to give it a full year; I strongly feel much damage can be done by 'curriculum hopping' about too frequently and not giving something a real chance.

     Along came our history program.  Primarily an outline of assignments, it provides guidance and suggestions for a year of studying ancient history.  Over the course of the year, the student is asked to complete four library trip/research assignments, designed to help him become familiar with using the research section of the library, learn to read multiple sources for information, learn how to use an outline to organize his thoughts, and to write a very short paper of a couple of paragraphs about the topic.  Over the course of a four-year cycle, these assignments transform into full-fledged research papers with appropriate citations, footnoting, and length.

     We arrived at his first research paper.  He diligently read several books on the topic.  He even took notes, and following my instructions, organized them by topic on different pages in his notebook.  When it came time to actually write the paper, he managed to stretch out the assignment from a four-day affair into nearly six weeks.  He was really terribly dreading the writing portion of the assignment.  He then discarded his notebook and wrote the paper off the top of his head, in a style intended to mimic his favorite fiction author, one who has a slightly irreverent tone.  The average sentence length was about 5 workds.  The effort gave me pause about our entire homeschooling enterprise, and certainly about my choice of writing program.

     However, for the time being, I held off on being overly critical.  It was the single longest piece of writing he had produced, ever.  He has written it on the computer, and even edited it several times.  He had really, really tried.  We hole-punched it and filed it into his history notebook.  I tried not to despair, and I thought hard about how to provide better guidance for the next paper without putting undue pressure on him, while still raising the bar.  I also pondered exactly what his lack of confidence (in the form of his uncharacteristic delaying of the assignment) was trying to tell me that he needed.

     A couple of months went by.  We continued with copying, dictating, and summarizing, plus typing lessons.  Every other month we do have a quick, fun assignment from a book called Unjournaling, but it is mostly fun and creative, not strenuous writing.  During this time period, I questioned my choice of writing program many, many times, and wondered whether I should jump ship and take a more aggressive tack, and run to something with much more explicit instruction and pegged at "his grade level."

     Recently, we arrived at the second research paper.  I let him know that the deadline on this one was firm.  I limited the scope of the assignment in his mind, by reminding him of the maximum length I expected; this was not to be a ten-page paper by any means, but a couple of well-written paragraphs, and written by DS1, not DS1 pretending to be someone else, please.  Just as we did with the prior paper, we had specific days for research, reorganizing notes, rough draft, and final draft writing, and again reminders that this time the deadlines were set in stone.  This time, I sat with him and had more discussion after the rough draft, and discussed ideas about how to generate a topic sentence and a conclusion.  We discussed how the body of the paper works, and what supporting details were hinted at, but missing in the paper, and he went and researched that information and added it.  I noted with pleasure (to him!) that he had done a phenomenal job of using paragraph structure that led neatly from one paragraph into the next, even while changing topics-- a light-year jump ahead from his prior paper.  The whining factor also dropped by a bucketful.  I let him head back to the computer to rework his rough draft.  He emerged from the office and announced, "No more drafts.  The paper is complete.  I am confident in it just the way it is."

     I let his paper sit in the printer where he had left it until he went to bed, letting him know I too had confidence in him.  Guess what?  That gap in time between the first and second history papers is exactly what he and I both needed.  Yes, there is still room to grow.  However, in just a couple of short months, he has already grown by light-years.  Roughly two months time has been enough to erase my worries and doubts that time spent copying sentences, taking dictation, and summarizing passages of literature and so forth has not been time wasted.  Nor was it time wasted to start at the beginning and walk through all of the lessons, even if we accelerated the pace.

     Patience and persistence have begun to pay off.  I could not see it at the beginning.  I could not see it in the middle of the year, at the time of the first research paper.  I really doubted my sanity many times.  There were times when DS1 noted the level number on some of the printed out stories and asked, incredulously, if he was doing "little kid" work.  If he continues to improve at this rate, he should be caught up to grade level or close to it by late spring, and after that, with some writing-specific tutoring that I already have in mind for him, I predict that he should have no trouble writing at (or who knows; possibly slightly above, but at is fine, too) grade level after that.  Best of all, I think I saw his confidence level rising with the success of the second paper, and I am hopeful that that trend will continue as his facility with writing improves.  And with each increasing success of his, of course, my confidence that we're heading the right direction improves as well.

     After close to a year in the homeschooling game, two things bubble to the top in difficulty to deal with.  First of course, is not popping off smart-alecky retorts to people who are not homeschooling and have never tried it, or who tried and failed, who try to tell you all about it and why it's bad for you (if I hear from one.more.person. about "socialization," who does not actually seem to understand what the word means . . . ).  Second is dealing with the areas of asynchrony in my kids.  Everyone is asynchronous in some fashion.  We're all good at one thing, and stink at another.   Homeschooling is great at dealing with asynchrony in one sense:  we aren't pegged to grade levels (I don't even refer to my kids as being in a grade any more; it just doesn't make sense to me).  You simply work in each subject at whatever skill level provides a challenge.  In another sense, homeschooling can be lonely and frustrating and a challenge to one's self-confidence when dealing with a long-term skill deficit.  Dealing with these issues is most often not a quick fix, but a long-term commitment, requiring patience and persistence, and above all, faith that you have picked some method that will return results over the long haul. 

     I'll be biting my nails just a little until he's encountered history essay #4.  Please wish us luck on our journey of patience and persistence.  And I will do my best to not force you to be quite as patient and update a little more often in the future :).

--Thanks for reading!