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.