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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!


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:


Student  _________reading________ Harry Potter

Grandparent ______writing________family stories


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.

Video games foe, friend, breaker of the family bank!

Video games get a bad rap, can be all consuming, and expensive. My guys can so into a game  they forget to eat or pee. At the same time, they stimulate so many ideas and cooperation. They work together to find solutions t beat the came. On the monetary front, every time a “new” version of something comes out my kids want to have it. Thankfully they have allowance. If they have the money, they can get it if not well, there is always next week.

Games have been at the center of many heated conversations in our house. My older son would spend all day every day playing them. The older he gets the more he wants us to treat him like an adult, which to him means “Let me do what I want.” School work doesn’t get done, chores don’t get done, exercise is not even on the radar. 

They can be my friend when some critical things need to happen. If something has to get done and the guys are in their “We don’t have anything fun to do!” mode, I let them extra game time so I can focus on the issue and resolve it. It’s like the box of phone toys my friend kept on a shelf. When you have to be on the phone, down they come, the toddlers are enthralled because they don’t see these all the time. The mission gets accomplished quickly and without distractions.

Then there is the cost. Games for the Wii are about $50.00 new. Handheld game system games run about $30.00. This is very irritating when a “new” version comes out. I say “new” because I’m convinced that only 5% of the game is different from the last release. They have us parents over a barrel. 

It may sound like I hate games. I do have a healthy disdain for some of these video induced side effects. Surprisingly, each of these has major upsides! The all consuming foe has taught my boys about budgeting time and getting things done. They figured out that getting what needs to be done, done, they are free to do what they like. I also noticed that their time spent drawing and playing out side is on the increase too.

Friend, well, that is pretty much the same. However, like on the foe side of things, they game out. We used the games while traveling. After the first delay, I was so thankful they had something to keep them occupied until the plane arrived and it was time to board. After a while they wanted to read and tell each other stories. Later they wrote some of them down!

As for breaking the bank, they’ve learned a great lesson there too. They have learned to budget and plan for what they want. An essential lesson in the current financial climate. They have set priorities for games, movies, books, and other things they’d like to buy. They will even pool their money of items that are more expensive, cooperation expanded! 

Mostly what amazes me is how much they did on their own. Yes, my husband and I set limits and some goals for school work, but my kids have really internalized how to get things done. They have practiced wise spending, cooperation, responsibility, creativity, and critical thinking. It is easy to write something off has all bad for you, brain-mushing, and a waste of time, but it isn’t always totally true.

I love my teenage son, can I send him to military camp now?

I was never so happy as the day I found out I was pregnant. After a doctor told me that I may have difficulty getting pregnant and that I may never have kids at all, to find I was pregnant sent me to the clouds. A baby! A family! Fourteen years later I have a contrary, mustachioed (thin but he cut it off with scissors), filibustering young man. 

On the one hand I am so frustrated! Every inch is an argument. My husband has offered to build the wheel of pain from Conan the Barbarian. His friend suggested military camp. Teaching was difficult, now he refuses my help in any form. He yells when I ask if he needs help “NEVER ask me if I need help!” and yells if I don’t “You NEVER ask me if I need help!” 

What can a parent do? What can I do?

It happened that one of the homeschool listserves I subscribe to had a parenting of teens thread. Not a moment to soon. Parents described their children, young adults really, as aliens, moody, argumentative, withdrawn, you name it. Hey, I have one of those too! A glimmer of hope. 

The subject came up about books. One book came up over and over. I figured there must be something in this book if over half of the posts referred to it. I bought a used copy on Amazon, Parent/Teen Breakthrough The Relationship Approach by Mira Kirshcenbaum and Charles Foster, Ph.D.. 

I must come clean. I have a book buying problem. I have shelves full of self help, eating issues, how to write better, teach dogs, parent kids, draw ocean animals, you name it books. The idea of buying another book is like adding a new brick to the foundation of a home that is never built. I don’t seem to read them once they are in the door.

This book is different. I can open it and read a page, a paragraph, or a single sentence and get something out of it. I read large sections some days, I read a few lines on others. It’s like the book doesn’t want to pressure me into reading it. Weird! and yet I keep reading.

And it works! I used the ideas and concepts right away. I use them every time I think of them.  He argues less, does more, smiles more, and lets me give him a hug now and again. My son is changed. I’ve changed. We are growing up together, not apart. We are a family growing up together. I love my teenage son, I’m keeping him.

But my kid needs….

I was thinking about it the other day, thinking about when I tell people I let my kids lead the way. I wrote a post about following your learners interests, needs, and passions. People often say to me, “My kid needs more structure”  or “My kid needs a schedule.”

That’s valuable need to know information! Take note!

These ideas are not contrary to following your child’s lead. If your kids need structure, or unstructrure, schedule, no schedule, honoring these things IS following your child’s lead. You are observing your child and making adjustments to help them learn more deeply, with more passion, and continued interest. If they need a schedule or all unplanned time, and you incorporate that into your homeschooling style, you ARE engaged in student directed learning.

Simply put, student directed learning means providing the setting, resources, subejcts, and opportunities your child needs to succeed. That is why this approach is so amazingly successful. You are always giving your student exactly what they require to learn. Trust the process, trust your kids, trust yourself!

“But how do you do it all alone?”

I hear that often when I talk to people who aren’t homeschoolers. They are so earnest and concerned. “How could you possibly do it all, all by yourself?” The answer is, I don’t. In truth, I don’t know anyone who does. 

Today is a good place to start and a great example. I am laid up with chronic pain and can’t drive. My husband is taking the guys to their English classes. At 12 and 14 we opted to have them attend classes with another teacher. She has moved them well beyond where they were in terms of concept, outlining, and body. 

Wednesday, is baseball day. Another home school parent wanted her kids to have the opportunity to play team sports. She put it out there, as in announcing that she was interested in this happening, WHOA! the kids and families that came out. There are enough kids for two full teams over 9 players each.

Friday is Piano and Judo. The morning is greeted by the sweet melodies and comical circus moods of beginning piano. The lessons are across our small town and at the home another mom. In the afternoon, one hour of Judo gives release to pent up anything. 

In another event by a mom who wanted to try something new, trash was the focus. Our guys worked with a family in a nearby town and cleaned up a river. They charted the kinds of trash they found. They collected trash, hauled it away, and even provided cans and bags! Now cleaning up is easier. They can just change the bags and be done. 

I hate to be corny, but if you build it, they will come. If you offer a class, arrange an outing, coach a team, clean a river, plant a tree, whatever, someone else will be interested in that too. Ask yourselves two questions: What do I want for my kids? What am I willing to do to make that happen? Now get your friends and family to ask those too. I bet your calendar will be full before you know it!