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How did we choose our homeschool method?

I get this question often. I finally wrote an answer to someone and decided to share it here. It’s a very organic process of research, observation, change, experience, and mistakes. The answer here is a bit of an overview. The details are tedious and not as necessary as the general idea of the very dynamic and living process of learning. For those who want to know, here it is!

 

In the beginning we used our local school district Independent Study Program (ISP). It gave us a lot of support and any structure that we needed. They also do ALL the state required paperwork. I don’t like paperwork and at that time this was a major factor. We did that from Kindergarten through 3rd grade. We moved that year and couldn’t get a transfer back into that district.,

 

At this time, I think we tried Merryhill Private School. It is a Nobel Learning Environment. That was a bust. They said they would support my older son getting up to speed. They expected him to get there in one week. He was also one of two boys in the class. The other ten students were girls. The teacher had just gotten her credential and was very flexible.

 

 

We used the  school district ISP in our new city. This started to not work for us when the teacher expected us to recreate the public school style in our home as the guys went up in grade level. She had very strict expectations for my older son who has. This was a big clash of ideas. She expected them to better than public school kids in achievement. My expectation was that they  liked who they are. At the same time, I had many friends who did the affidavit method and loved it. They used to be called R-4, I forget what they are called now. We left that program.

 

 

Next, we chose a different public charter school. It was in a district in the next county and was allowed to service our county as well. This was worse. They wanted my son to get evaluated for learning disabilities because he couldn’t write all the math problems and solve them on one sheet of paper. He did about 8 a page. I was very angry that they wanted to call a meeting with the school psychologist, special ed. person, principal. I got that this teacher didn’t have a lot of knowledge about learning as a process and was very into what learning “should” look like, which is more than 8 math problems on a sheet of paper.

 

 

We left that program mid year and filed an R-4. We did that for the remainder of the year. The next school year we joined a public charter school and we have been very happy. Our teacher homeschooled her  own daughters. There were so many conversations that we didn’t need to have because she new the whole homeshooling thing.

 

 

We researched Waldorf and didn’t like the approach to how science was taught. The “free the spirit from the wood by burning it” was a no go for my physicist husband. I also didn’t like the set schedule. Often children were expected to be quiet and do . Those things come later for boys than they do for girls. It felt very controlled and not very inline with child development. I admit, I am a Piaget/Vygotsky/Montessori kind of gal. My husband supported my research into things. 

 

 

For us it is a constant process of evaluation. Is what we are doing working for the guys? How can we make it better? In this way, it is always the most relevant to the interests and passions of the guys. I won’t kid you and say it’s a cake walk. It takes time and energy to always be analyzing what we are doing  and looking for new ways to keep the brain fires burning. This is the kind of parent I wanted to be, engaged, supportive, and loving to my children. 

 

 

A friend told me once that she could pinpoint the time in her life when she lost that sparkle in her eyes. She saw it in a family photo when she started school. Her eyes were just there, open, and looking at the camera. The essence of her was broken. She told me that the most important thing was never letting that spark get lost. When I look at pictures of my boys, I can still see it and I know they like who they are.

The More Things Change

Hands off. That is what I get a lot now that I have a teen and a tween. It is so difficult to give that up. I remember them being little and needing me to be there to see them, help them, listen to them. Now they want me make the snacks and then go do something else.

While this bothered me for a long time, it was a long time on the horizon. I see it now from another perspective. They are so confident and comfortable that they can handle things on their own. I started to see them as these capable young men. I am in a new sense of awe around them. 

When I mulled over things in my mind, they’ve always been this way. “Mom, mom, look at me.” I look. “Now go do something else.” Over and over an now what they do is so much more than stack blocks, or climb a ladder. Now they solve complex equations, write comics, use the computer create animated art.

I always think it’s new. How silly. They are just more. As always, the more my hands are off, the more they are working on it. The it evolves over time. It changes but it stays the same. I will always have those two little boys and I can see them in the young men they are becoming. They may be changing but some part is still the same, I love that.

What you plan to learn and what you actually learn

There is a saying, I’m not sure by who, that goes something like this “Life is what happens when you make plans.” I think learning is the same way. We make schedules, evaluate curriculum, find classes, and so many other things. All the while, learning hasn’t stopped. This year is a perfect example.

My oldest is in high school. This is his first year and to fill some gaps where we didn’t have a subject matter expert (SME), we enrolled him in an online high school. We spent so much time focusing the content. Was he getting all the support he needed from his cyber teacher? Did all the links work? Was he online for enough time? In the end, we spent more time discussing pacing.

It turns out that the real lesson was making sure the work load was spread evenly over the entire semester. My son learned how much he could do in a day before he was overdone. He learned that sometimes nothing online works so you have to go back to the actual book and write things down, OH NO!

I learned that handing over responsibility for something doesn’t mean I’m not off the hook. This semester, the teacher graded things so slowly that often we had no idea what concepts needed more work and what were okay. We are still waiting for some scores to come back.

While I know some biology A and pre-algebra B made it in his brain, what my son really took away from the term is that doing what you can when you can makes a difference. I learned that too. What can I do to support him? What can I do to encourage him over time and not berating him when things fall behind? Once again, my son is the designated student but we all have access to the learning, and we didn’t even need to plan it.

Summer fun, I can hear it now!

People always ask me if we school through the summer. The answer is yes but differently. In the summer it’s a passion free for all. We use our time “off” to really dig deep into where the guys have the most interest. For us it’s art. My mother is an artist and instructor at a State university. Needless, they have grown up drawing, painting, creating with abandoned.

My son Owen has his own comic strip Mr. Mushroom. It follows our fungus formed magical paint brush toting hero as he confronts bad dreams, monsters, and heat waves. He came up with this on his own during the Homeschool Association of California Conference last August. Since then he has gone on many adventures and is currently facing off with a squirrel that is trying to take is home, a giant acorn.

Gene is the Manga master. He started drawing from the get go. I still have a green marker on blue paper that he drew at age two. He spends these days creating his own supplemental characters to his favorite video games, anime cartoons, and his own stories. He is now so picky, that he regularly goes through his works and takes out items that are now non standard. I think they are all great. 

They do so much more than drawing, or painting. The talk, plan, write, and think. It’s that last one that is so important. Really using their brains, getting into story arcs, character development, motivation, all kinds of things that make stories engaging and relevant. 

Over the years I’ve heard their growing up in the words that they say. It is wonderful to be near by listening. From the early days of Pokémon catching fruit and robots finding missing parts, to the rise of Mario, and now Meerkats as warriors. I am so proud of their creativity, self direction, and humor. They are birds set free to fly. I love to watch them soar.

A thought about curriculum

I was going to wait until Monday to write this but I found myself getting obsessed with it. This is something that I think about often but never say out loud. Curriculum is often purchaed by parents who love it, without thinking about how their kids need to learn. I am totally guilty of this myself, way guilty.

I see posts off all the time from parents who are enchanted with this or that curriculum. It’s so enticing too. It comes in a great box with everything you need. Calvert is an excellent program but the more I read about the more I thought “There is no way my kids will use this.” My next thrall was Oak Meadow. I still have a mental hard on for this. It’s such gentle in it’s approach. I almost wish I could go back and do K through 6 myself just to use it. Again, it just wasn’t something that matched who my kids are.

I must confess to being a major proponent of student directed learning. Having schooled my own at home and taught in a public school classroom it works. I can tell you from expereince, when students do what they are interested in they learn the skills needed to succeed faster and with better retention. They can apply it to more situations because they have better mastery of it.

This get’s back to all the trust I’m always on about. Students, young people, have to be trusted to learn otherwise they will always be looking outside themselves for direction and approval. Those who love learning do so because the are allowed to explore the topice, idea, or concept to thier hearts content, wihtout fear of limits placed on them external schedules, standards, and age restrictions.

My son was interested in ancient Greece and Rome when he was 10 years old. This was not on the content standards for the grade he was in. He’d have to wait until the following year to learn that if we used a boxed standards based curriculum. He would have missed out on so much reading, book after book. By striking while the iron is hot, so much more get’s done.

It makes sense that we all love to do what we are interested in. If I had gone with something fixed we might not have arrived where we are today. We certainly would have had more arguments about getting things done. We all the others things involved in learning and growing, unnecessary conflict is something I can do without. If you are having trouble with your schooling, ask “Am I doing this for me or for them?” This is a question I ask everyday. It saves time, feelings, and sanity.

Can we have meaningful school reform?

School reform, this is an issue that causes gasps or cheers. What do we mean by school reform? What results to we expect to get after these changes? Teachers, parents, administrators, and even presidents want schools to produce students that are literate in math, and English. The California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) is all over that. Are english and math enough?

In recent years, school reform has meant more standardized testing and less recess. More instructional time is spent on English and math than any other subject. Students will take a variety of tests during their tenure in the K-12 system. There is STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting), CAHSEE, the California English Language Development Test (CDELT), SAT/9 and Cat/6. That’s just California. These exams take an up instructional days and all to often instructional content.

Testing doesn’t provide a true assessment of where students are. Many college are now saying that SAT and ASVAB scores are not the keystone they used to be. Why is that? You can cram for any test and get a high or at least a better one. In that instance the score is really the measure of how well you can cram. What can you do in a classroom or more importantly in life? You can’t cram for life.

As teachers prepstudents for exams, the must choose between what creates literate students and what makes good test takers. Time that could be spent on science or reading the U.S. Constitution get reallocated to testing skills and content preparation.People argue that this isn’t the case. I disagree. When funding is tied to achievement, you can bet time will be set aside to ensure district income. It makes perfect economic sense. But schools are about learning not about economics, right?

No. School are most definitely not about learning. My evidence for this is from first hand experience. Our school had a library that most students didn’t even know was there. There was a part time librarian that was eventually let go to save money. The district closed the print shop and now teachers must make all their own photo copies. That isn’t bad but they limit how much you can copy so they can save money. As another money saving device, the school nurse is only on site one day a week.

Money saving. That’s really what’s going on. The same year the district laid off over twenty teachers, the school board approved a pay raise for the Superintendent. Call me crazy, but even a 2% raise would mean a lot of copy paper. I forget what the raise actually was. None of this supports learning. The bottom line may work in the free-market but it doesn’t mix with education. Real learning must adapt to the needs of a large and varied population. This is not a one size fits all system. It has many niches areas. It can’t homogenized to fit into one industrial model.

Do really change our schools we have to change how we think about learning and really define what me mean by it. Anyone who has played Civilisation knows that you have to keep the populous happy to win. One way to do that is to keep them engaged. When you teach children and adults how to love learning, they have that for life. All to often what is taught is information control. I am the teacher, I will dispense this knowledge to you. You must then tell it back to me so I know that you know. How sad. Where is the love and fun in investigation the world around you?

Curiosityis a natural human trait. It need only be tapped to set off learning. The current education paradigm kills this need to know. Textbooks used in today’s classrooms sometimes aren’t even relevant. In one high school English book, the first story is about a middle aged man contemplating suicide. If you are a 15 year old girl from Mexico, how is that going to hook you? It isn’t.

The textbook industry is vested in districts buying their products. So often they are the only game in town and they set the standard for what is available in the classroom. I’m not saying don’t use them but balance them with relevant resources that students actually care about. This is dangerous ground. Ideas like this place the student ahead of the teacher in terms of classroom power. People don’t like this. “Ive gone to college and taken classes, tests, and student taught. These kids don’t know anything. That’s why I’m here.” Students know the most important thing, they know what they are interested in. When we can separate content from skills, we can teach skills. Students can select the content. Everyone wins.

Can we have meaningful school reform? Yes, but we must be willing to shine the light on our darkest places and excise the agendas we bring to the task of teaching. We must be willing to trust students to learn. We must make sure they have resources to learn with. False measures must be removed from the system. Education must include all subjects, history, music, art, science, physical education- not just math an English. Research shows the latter item to be true.

Fear of letting go of the old paradigm keeps us where we are and where we are isn’t working. We know it isn’t working because record numbers of California students are dropping out. In 2008 the dropout rate was 24% (SFGate.com accessed 5/9/09). We can blame the vitcim or we can make an educational system that meets thier needs. That’s what education should be about, the learner. With a little trust, it can be.

Separation of Life and School

Should homeschooling and be separate? Tammy Takahashi asked this question in her blog Just Enough and Nothing More. What a fantastic query! AFterall there is the separation of Church ans State, but seriously, can they be separate? I don’t think so.

Sure on a surface level we can say “We worked on U.S. History from 9am to 10:15 am and then we did math.” But that is just a delination of time on task. This says nothing about the nature of mind and it’s processes. Our mind keeps working on things and doesn’t really care about In college a math teacher told us to work on a problem for sixty seconds. If we didn’t have ananswer, move on. Our brain would be working on it in it’s back brain burner.

This made total sense to me. I have these days where I can’t solve something. I think about it off and on all day. Then as I am drifting off to sleep, I have that eureka moment. I bolt out of bed, run to the kitchen and write that answer down. Something I’ve worked that hard on I am not letting slip away again.

Maybe there are two answers to this question. On the one hand, one can schedule the “teaching” time for a given subject. On the other hand, the processes of the brain are not time dependant. Thank goodness for that. If not, we might not even have the word “Eureka!” to explain ourselves with. Archimedes thought about things all the time. So did Pythagoras, though his thoughts about farting and the soul escaping the body are more hilarious than life changing. There are so many thinkers: Da VInci, Edison, Ben Franklin, my kids, your kids, and so many more.

When people say think outside the box, maybe we should say “just think.” Think about life, learning, and boxes or un-boxes. Life is integration. It only makes sense that there is no separation of life and school. It’s all part of our lives, our lviing, our thoughts and thinking.  Eureka!

Bridges

I’ve been thinking a lot about education, and learning. We, the royal we, say we want to children to have a good education. That isn’t the same as wanting children to be life long learners. It seems to me that education is about content, while learning is about skill and ability. This fits into the whole idea of content standards. This isn’t learning, this is what a student should know by a certain grade. Learning is a whole other deal. 

Learning is the process by which we education ourselves, it is the bridge. To learn is to know how to read, write, and calculate. If I acquire these three foundation skills, I can learn any content I find interesting. On a deeper level, learning is access. If a student, has these basic skills they have access to knowledge. As the saying goes, knowledge is power.

If I can read even at the 5th grade level, I have access to the news around me in newspapers. If I can write, I can respond, file a complaint, make a plan, or leave a note. Calculating allows me understanding and control of my own money, and time. That is a tremendous amount of power both personally and community wide.

When students have trouble learning, we blame the skills but maybe the content is the issue. When I wanted a pony I read everything about horses. It didn’t matter that reading was time consuming and difficult for me. I wanted to know it all, how else can a young girl persuade her parents if she can’t answer every question. That’s loads of motivation. My reading improved for sure but that wasn’t what I was thinking about. Some people need that consuming motivation to get them really moving with a new skill.

There has to be enough skill to have basic access. Then practice takes over and the skill improves. The idea is to get struggling students to want to cross the bridge. For my own kids the topic was video games. For my sister it was history. For my husband it’s space. Everyone has something. Watch your learners and talk to them. You are sure to find out their hot topics.

It can be diagramed like this:

PERSON __________SKILL_________MOTIVATING CONTENT

Student  _________reading________ Harry Potter

Grandparent ______writing________family stories

Father________calculating_________allowance 

When your learner or you, for that matter, are having difficulties with something new, diagram your bridge and see if you are putting the right skill to the right content. You may need to shift things around for a specific content to be accessed. This is where learning types, knowing how you or your student learns, is important. A student my write well but must first hear information before using it in writing. That’s another topic. 

A side benefit of this process is learning connectedness. Students often ask “Why do I need to know that?” or “When am I going to use this?” When individuals see how skills and content are connected, they are less resistant undertaking new assignments. They also make connections between new and prior knowledge much faster. This goes a long way to making learning enjoyable and life long.

When you sit down with your student, learner, whoever, ask “Is my goal to acquire new content?” If the answer is yes, then choose the skill that best bridges the gap. If your goal is to practice a skill, find the most entertaining content to get the student over the skills bridge. Then have at it. Either way, students will be more motivated and gain a deeper understanding of how and why they learn.

Software already loaded!

In talking with my mother this week, I had a thought about how we learn. My mother teaches art at a state university. We were talking about how learning is such a natural process. One of use had talked with someone who was concerned that they couldn’t get all the information thought to be essential into the students brains. Like they had to be force-fed or something.

I blurted out, as I often do. “They already know how to learn it.”

Then I considered why I thought and said that. 

Major thought number 2. It’s just like walking. No one has to tell a baby how to walk. They figure it out for themselves, like talking, eating, and everything else. Parents are there to help them when they fall, to cook dinner, read them books, and more. In short, parents are facilitators. 

People come fully loaded at birth. They are programmed to study their environment, try new things, and gain new insights. Being in a “learning environment” shouldn’t be any different. Teachers “best practice” is as the bridge to what the students need or want to learn. Oh and don’t get me started on all the eduspeak. 

I am so frustrated and angered by the Education Tribes need to create more ways to “teach children to learn”. They know how to do it. They don’t need another test that they are taught to pass. When students are left to interact all these things come up on their own. My kids have been homeschooled since the beginning using this bridge to learning method and they always score in the above average or advanced sections on STAR tests, when they take them. 

It is my growing opinion that educators need to feel important. If a student does so  much on their own, what is the teacher doing? How are they important? Facilitated learning requires a lot embeded curriculum in the learning environment. It is hidden and teased out as students access it. Teachers are important because they can create that environment. However, they don’t. Like a person yelling at a someone who doesn’t speak their language, thinking if I’m louder, they will understand, school systems stick to this false structure of testing, lingoism, and classes grouped by age.

My own elementary experience was in an open education classroom. It was multi grades and abilities all in one room. Everyone talking to everyone else. It was stimulating and spectacular. Everyone worked at their own pace and guess what, we all felt good about who we were. Most of those I still keep in touch with have gone to college and surprisingly many are homeschooling their own. 

As a public school teacher, the pain of seeing kids going from bright eyed to glazed over is like a punch in the stomach. I see my kids going on and doing more and more and more. Their eyes are bright. They want to learn more. They do learn more and they always will. Their software is already loaded.

Grass, green, paths less travelled

In her blog Just Enough and Nothing More, Tammy Takahashi discusses the question “Is homeschooling better than school?” You can read her post here. This is such a vital and topical issue and I think it is at the root of such red herrings as socialization and “real world” integration. I call these red herrings because there is sufficient evidence to show that a person who attends park and recreation classes, goes to conferences, is in 4-H, Scouts (boy and girl), garage bands, website development, church groups, teen clubs, and kitchen sink development* are clearly getting along and in the real world. It follows if a person is doing this in the “real world” then they must be integrated into society.

The root to all of this is the “grass is greener” fear. What if what they have is better? If I send my kids to public school, are they missing out? and if they are, what are they missing? What do homeschooler’s do or have that my kids don’t? These are all great questions and there are no easy answers. The fear is real. I totally understand that. When we chose to homeschool I was plenty afraid. I feared what public school would do to my sensitive 5 year old son more. I wanted to fit in but not at the cost of that beautiful boys creative mind and silly sense of humor. In short, I wanted him to be himself and fit in.

It’s no wonder I felt confused. Think about America itself. Mainstream society has a real bipolar reaction to homeschooling. On the one hand they fear what is not the norm. By norm I mean the thing that most Americans are doing. If you or I are doing something on the periphery of society we must be duplicitous in our actions. That’s a pretty heavy assumption. How many Shakers are there, and do people see the worst in them? If I follow and don’t succeed, it’s my own fault for not creating my own out of the box solution. Talk about U turns!

That 180 degree turn of thought is pervasive. Mainstream America showers accolades on homeschoolers they feel are “amazing” and truly accomplished. 1997 Scripps  Spelling Bee winner Rebecca Sealfon and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelp come to mind. These individuals and many others, are true Americans because they have taken the reins of their lives, showing the hard work, grit, and perseverance lead to success. Blazing a new trail is as American as panning for Gold, taming the West, and going against King George III by creating a Declaration of Independence.

As with so many things, when it’s something most people want it’s good and if most people don’t want it, it’s bad. Be original, be an individual, don’t follow what others tell you to do, question authority. We say these things but we don’t mean them, at least not for all Americans. We back that up and even ensure it by keeping some schools back by underfunding, poor management, and institutionalized class warfare/racism. 

I am harsh. I mean to be. As a teacher in a public school for adults, I have seen how insidious these factors are. They are so embedded in the system most people aren’t even aware that they are recreating them. A look, a glance, ridiculous watered down texts, moving at the speed of the slowest student, teaching to middle, teaching to the test, lack of multicultural administrators, are just some ways kids are shut down in poor areas. Poor areas are often where new immigrants are because it’s cheaper there.  The system turns round and round and round. 

Those who break out and choose to make informed choices about their children’s education are instigators. We follow Forst’s path less taken and we are judged for it. Follow, follow the others, so I the mainstream parent, don’t have to question what I’ve chosen for my kids. Did I even choose? Well that’s what every family does. Those issues are not my issues. 

The main element missing here is choice. My husband and I made the choices we made to meet the needs of our family. We considered our issues. If a person is worried if one is better than the other, that is an issue they need to address. They need to see that they can make a choice and if they choose to stay where they are, excellent. Self determination means that, determine for yourself. Do your own souls searching, research, discussing, whatever. Take a good look at your grass. Do you like how green it is?  Ours is green enough for us.

 

Thank you Tammy for getting me thinking.

* kitchen sink development has yet to be proven but I had to get “kitchen sink” in there somewhere.