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.