Educational Neglect is Not Okay

When I first got into homeschooling, it was with the assumption that homeschooling regulation was generally bad and that homeschoolers, with the exception of a few bad apples, were good people.

Unfortunately, having been around the block a few times, I’m not quite so idealistic anymore. For one thing, I think all homeschool parents should spend a little time reading the stories on Homeschoolers Anonymous if you haven’t already. They range from just disappointing to terrifying, but none of them are good. And there’s typically a slow but steady stream of stories in the media about families who either use homeschooling as a cover to mask abuse or who purposefully practice educational neglect. Just last week, the story of a Texas family who allegedly refused to teach their children because they believed the rapture was coming hit the news again when the Texas Supreme Court remanded the decision to lower courts to decide on different issues than those brought up there, effectively saying it was okay for them to have done that.

It continually frustrates me that homeschoolers tend to close ranks and defend fellow homeschoolers who claim the government is meddling in their affairs, even when evidence comes to light that they indicate are guilty of real neglect. Just look at the case of the Naugler family last year. They raised an inordinate amount of money online from fellow homeschoolers and homesteading families after the state removed the children from the home. However, even images and statements by the mother herself made it clear the children were living in squalor and not receiving any educational efforts.

I want to be clear that I’m not against unschooling or delayed schooling or slower timetables. I’m not talking about when you have a rough few months and less gets done or when you have to take a month or two off for an illness or the birth of a baby. Not having a formal time to “do school” doesn’t indicate educational neglect. Not having textbooks or tests isn’t the same thing as educational neglect. And it’s hard to know from offhanded statements from kids or even parents that they’re not “doing much school” whether that’s true or not. Kids can see the world differently, parents can be humble or just not want to talk about how they’re not fully living up to their own vision and standards. There’s no reason to step in and judge based on that. And no reason for anyone, homeschooler or neighbor or well-meaning family member, to put a child on the spot and quiz them because they’re homeschooled. You’re not doing anyone any favors and asking a bewildered 9 year-old to recite his times tables apropos of nothing is just rude. And sometimes the government does step in and make life a nightmare for a good family based on nothing but a nosy neighbor’s misconception.

However, when a family actively prevents a child from accessing education, that’s not unschooling or any legitimate philosophy of education or childrearing, that’s neglect. It happens. I’m talking about families that refuse to allow their children to go to the library or refuse to teach older children to read or do basic arithmetic, even when the children ask or beg for lessons or materials. These are families where kids ask to attend school, not for social reasons, but because they see that their peers know vastly more about the world than they do. While most homeschoolers are good people who love their kids and do their best, there is a strain of people in homeschooling who are keeping their children home for reasons of control, who are purposefully not equipping them with basic skills. And it doesn’t matter if there’s a religious reason for it. There’s no religion that commands that children be denied basic skills to succeed in their world.

I don’t know exactly what would prevent educational neglect for homeschooled kids. Many of the regulations on the books now are either silly hoops that abusers can easily fake like attendance records or measures that leave too much open to interpretation by the state. In my own jurisdiction, the law asks us to keep “a portfolio of materials” but doesn’t really define what that means. Overly vague statues don’t serve anyone because they give the state power to be capricious in enforcement. Too often, in states with reviews or where plans must be approved, the reviewers know next to nothing about what homeschooling looks like and the guidelines are vague.

On the other hand, I refuse to believe that means that nothing can be done to protect innocent kids from educational neglect. For one thing, families that refuse to jump through those silly hoops like having a child take a test that doesn’t even require sending in results or drawing up some attendance records, seem to be doing their kids a disservice in one way by not following a law that’s easy to follow, so perhaps there’s a correlation that they’re not serving their kids in other ways. A group made up mostly of former homeschooled students, the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, has some recommendations, most of which are reasonable and worth consideration.

As homeschoolers, we shouldn’t just throw up our hands and say, oh well, a few bad apples are going to neglect their children’s education. Often, homeschoolers place their own rights to direct their children’s education above the rights of children to receive an education in the first place. In other words, if there’s a conflict between the state interfering in a homeschool versus trying to protect children, then homeschool families tend to say that the parents’ rights not to have the state interfere should always win. However, I cannot accept that. My right to do less paperwork or be hassled a little less can’t trump a child’s right to a basic education. I just don’t buy that.

Educational neglect is real neglect. Every time these cases surface, it depresses me to see how homeschoolers excuse, dismiss, and defend parents who simply aren’t doing their job to see that their kids get an education. Basically, this is my plea to you not to defend families who seem to be practicing educational neglect. If you see these stories in the media, don’t give them money, don’t talk about how they were probably doing fine, don’t assume every homeschooler you meet is as good as you. Don’t get stuck in suspicion either, but resist the urge to close ranks when there may be a real problem.

 

The Loss of Confidence

Playing with bubbles and Zomes for math.
Playing with bubbles and Zomes for math.

I didn’t mean to take a several months long blog break. Sorry, y’all.

Did anyone else read about this study? Articles about it ran everywhere over the last few months, though that Wall Street Journal one is one of the more in depth takes. The gist is that parents of middle schoolers are the most depressed, unsure, and stressed. To those of you out there with middle schoolers, it probably comes as no surprise. I used to teach middle school and it makes perfect sense to me, but it still surprised me a little how hard this year has hit me.

Several of the news summaries of the study pointed out that even the most confident parents tend to second guess themselves in the middle school years. Isn’t it a little disconcerting when you fit a profile to such a tee? I don’t always think I’m doing thing right or perfect, but I am usually beyond confident that I’m doing okay and that it’ll all work out. That feeling went out the window over the last few months.

The main source of our struggles have been Mushroom’s anxiety. I’ve written about it before and there’s not some grand new insight I can share. However, it has forced us to change school dramatically and forced me to feel downtrodden and despondent on several occasions as I see him cry and struggle, both emotionally and, as a result, academically as well. When things are going well, he can solve any math problem, spell well enough to not look illiterate, read longer articles and discuss them with intelligence. That mostly went out the window over the last few months.

We’ve switched over to focusing on workbooks for Mushroom, which was painful to me in some ways to hand a child a pile of Evan-Moor and Critical Thinking workbooks and call it proper school, but I think it’s helping to have work that’s beyond straightforward and simple instead of complex projects and open ended discovery based math. Sometimes the biggest challenge is to teach the child you have and not the child you want.

And some things are going really well. BalletBoy is writing up a storm of bizarre crossover fanfiction. They’ve both been flying through a pile of reading about the Mayans and having fun learning about what made the Mayan civilization fall. Mushroom built a cool robot at his makerspace. BalletBoy advanced his level in ballet. They both read and enjoyed The Giver for school and had a bunch of cool conversations about it. Both of them immediately saw the parallels to Plato’s allegory of the cave, which made me feel like they got something out of our fall philosophy study.

And now it’s summer. We keep doing school in summer and Mushroom has maybe maybe turned a corner for now. So while I’m sure that I’ll keep second guessing myself more than ever, things keep moving on with highlights and lowlights. I just have to remember to focus on the positives. I love middle schoolers, really. The fact that it’s a tough time is part of the magic of the age.

Our Favorite “Issue” Books

Not too long ago, I posted about how my kids just aren’t that into fantasy books. And I bemoaned it all. Alas! Alack! What I didn’t emphasize so much is how Mushroom in particular actually does like another sort of book that I wasn’t a huge fan of as a kid – books where kids have some sort of issue to overcome or face. We’re talking books with illness, death, depression, learning differences, and other such challenges for kids. These, for whatever reason, are right up Mushroom’s alley.

But that’s okay. “Issue” books, if done right, aren’t a bad thing at all. I talked about how fantasy helps kids face the darkness, and so do some of the books about death or illness in the real world. And they can give kids a different perspective on life, that of someone who is different abled or who had a unique experience. So I give you a list of some of our favorites, though keep in mind that this is just a taste of what’s out there. Some of these Mushroom has read and loved and others he has yet to discover, but they’re books I really like. There are some great young adult books in this category, but I stuck to books in the middle grades age for this list.

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
This is a book about a girl with cerebral palsy who is unable to control her movements or even communicate. Underneath, she’s brilliant, but until a computer arrives to help her speak, no one knows and everyone underestimates her, treating her like she can’t ever become smarter than a young child. This is a classic story of overcoming disability and others’ preconceptions. Draper is an amazing writer and Melody’s reality really comes to life in this book.
The Issues: Cerebral palsy and giftedness.
Appropriate for: Any age. This is one of those books that’s aimed solidly at middle schoolers. Like many on this list, it’s fine for younger readers, but best appreciated by about 9 or 10 years old and up.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
This book was such a smash hit that I’m sure most people are aware of it. It’s quickly becoming one of those modern classics that makes the “must” list for kid reading. Auggie has a deformity that is immediately obvious and causes most people to feel extremely uncomfortable or to shun him. For the first time in his life, he attends school and tries to fit in and make new friends. The story is told in changing voices that are extremely well done. Palacio has issued a second book of extra chapters or stories that can be added to the understanding of the characters.
The Issues: Physical deformities and bullying.
Appropriate for: Nearly any age, though it might be worth waiting a little on this one. Probably best appreciated by age 8 and up.

The Thing About Georgie by Lisa Graff
Georgie is an average kid with average problems. He and his best friend might be growing apart. A girl at school occasionally torments him. His parents are expecting a new baby and he’s not too happy about it. However, Georgie is also a little person and he worries that many of his problems stem from his size. This is a great little book because the problems Georgie faces are so relateable. However, Graff occasionally pauses the narrative with “assignments” for the reader, to illustrate how different life is for Georgie, how furniture, musical instruments, and the world in general just aren’t made for him.
The Issues: Being a Little Person (dwarfism).
Appropriate for: Any age. The reading level on this book is a nice lower end middle grades level as well.

Counting By 7’s by Holly Sloan
Early in the story, Willow’s parents die in a very unexpected accident, leaving her completely alone. Willow is a genius, profoundly gifted in a variety of ways, but stuck in a school where her talents are largely unrecognized. She seizes on to one of the only people she likes, a Vietnamese American girl who saw the same disaffected school therapist once a week. Willow manages to move in with the Nguyen family and slowly transforms their lives as well as the therapist who is supposed to be helping her.
The Issues: Parental death, learning disabilities, giftedness, and depression.
Appropriate for: The writing in this book is sparse and not too hard, but the perspective can feel very heavy and dark. Probably best enjoyed by age 9 or 10 and up.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
There’s so much packed into this little book, it’s pretty amazing. The narrator, Caitlin, has autism and is struggling to deal with her brother’s recent death in a school shooting. Through therapy sessions at school, new friendships with younger students, and finishing a project her brother started, she learns to get closure and move on. There are allusions to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird throughout the story, adding an extra layer of depth to an already packed tale.
The Issues: Autism, school shootings, and sibling death.
Appropriate for: This is one of those great books that straddles the gulf between middle grades novels and slightly more graphic or grown up young adult fare. The school shooting isn’t graphically described so younger kids who are more comfortable with dark fare should be okay with it and it’s not a difficult read, but especially with all the literary allusions, I’d save it for about age 9 or 10 and up, just because most kids will get more out of it at a slightly older age.

El Deafo by Cece Bell
This is a graphic memoir about the author’s youth growing up deaf. Bell became mostly deaf at a young age and was helped to hear in a mainstream classroom by a special device that her teachers wore that would broadcast their voices right into her ears. At first, she felt like an outcast, but as time went on, she came to see it as a superpower, especially when she realized that she could hear the teachers gossip or use the bathroom when they forgot to turn it off. The art in this book – the characters are all rabbits – is very sweet. I’ve mentioned it on my blog before because it’s one of Mushroom’s all time favorites. The messages are all positive and it’s one of those stories that can be enjoyed by kids of all ages.
The Issues: Deafness.
Appropriate for: Any age. The reading level is relatively low. Great as a “serious” graphic novel read for a reluctant reader.

Joey Pigza Swallowed a Key by Jack Gantos
So many books feature kids who are contemplative or quiet or generally “good” kids. That’s not this book. Joey is a kid who can’t sit still, who constantly makes the wrong choices, who simply can’t seem to help himself from bouncing off the walls. I have to admit that while my kids liked a lot of Gantos’s other work (and if you ever have a chance to see him speak, he’s a great speaker!), this series wasn’t for them. However, I love Joey and have seen some former students who really identified with these books. I’m glad they’re out there and they’re definitely worth a read for a lot of kids. These are funny, fun books.
The Issues: ADHD and divorce.
Appropriate for: Any age. Gantos does a great job of explaining how Joey is “wired” differently. However, I suspect that many younger kids wouldn’t fully understand that Joey’s “bad” behavior isn’t entirely his fault, so I wouldn’t automatically hand it to a precocious young reader. Written at about a 4th grade level.

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer Holm
This is a graphic novel with bright and cheerful artwork, but a darker subject gets introduced partway through the story. Sunny has gone to stay with her grandfather in his retirement community. At first, it’s like a vacation, but soon it becomes clear that she’s there because her family needs to deal with drug and alcohol abuse by her brother back at home. The story doesn’t really flinch from showing the negative behavior that her brother’s drug use led to. However, it also has the humor that’s characteristic of all of Holm’s books. Overall, a great book.
The Issues: Drug and alcohol abuse.
Appropriate for: We liked this book, but I think the marketing on it really missed the mark. We even saw Holm discuss the book before we happened to read it and had no concept that it was an issue book that dealt with some dark moments. The cover and back flap make it sound light and fun. When you add in that in the graphic novel world the Holm siblings are mostly known for the younger kid friendly Babymouse and Squish series and that the reading level on this graphic novel isn’t much higher, the drug abuse seemed to come out of left field. I would say at least age 8 or 9 and up unless it’s a topic that a younger child already has some familiarity with because of family history. And because the reader may be expecting a different sort of story, introducing it by saying that it covers some difficult issues is probably a good idea for any readers who don’t like to be blindsided.

Crash by Jerry Spinelli
I could have put a lot of Spinelli’s books on this list, but this one, about a bully in the process of reforming, is one of his best. The main character is a stereotypical jock who likes to pick on a stereotypical underdog. However, when his uncle suffers a stroke, he begins to understand how his priorities have been all wrong. From the outside, the book sounds pat, since the former bully and his former victim become friends. However, Spinelli’s writing and good characters manage to help the book transcend the afterschool special cliches.
The Issues: Bullying and family illness/disability.
Appropriate for: Any age. The social and friendship issues covered make this book best for about age 9 or 10 and up. It’s written at about a fourth or fifth grade level.

A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass
This is one of my favorites and definitely by favorite by Mass. The main character, Mia, has a secret that she’s kept for many years. She can see sounds and numbers have colors. Mia has a love-hate relationship with her abilities. She loves them but she also worries it makes her different from everyone else and it makes math incredibly difficult. However, early in the story, she realizes that it’s part of a condition called synnesthesia. The rest of the story is about Mia coming to terms with her condition as part of her identity and helping the people around her understand her better. Unlike a lot of the books on this list, Mia doesn’t have a huge amount of hardship to endure (her condition acts like a learning disability in some cases and she deals with tricky middle school growing up stuff). However, it’s a great one for getting into the head of someone who sees the world differently.
The Issues: Synesthesia, a condition that’s like having your senses wired incorrectly.
Appropriate for: This is one of those books that’s on the bubble between middle grades and young adult. There’s nothing inappropriate per se, but there is some mild romance and a tiny bit of early teenage rebellion. Fine for nearly any age, but probably best appreciated by 9 or 10 and up. The writing is right at that level as well.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
This is our current read aloud and I’m remembering what a good job Creech does interweaving all the different threads of the story together. I’m about to give major spoilers in this blurb, so apologies. The main character, Sal, is on a cross-country trip with her grandparents to visit her mother. Along the way, they encounter adventures and she spins a tale, ostensibly of her friend Phoebe, though Phoebe’s story has some parallels to her own, as well as some big differences. The book does a good job of portraying Phoebe and Sal’s different reactions of anger as well as drawing out the mystery of what happened to Sal’s mother. The realization that she died isn’t entirely unexpected, but it’s nice the way Sal’s refusal to accept her mother’s death keeps the reader questioning whether their own instincts can possibly be correct.
The Issues: Parental depression and death (spoiler!)
Appropriate for: Another book that’s really tailor made for the middle school age. Nothing inappropriate, though the early romantic tension between some of the kids gives it a slightly older feel. Fine for any age, but best appreciated by age 9 or 10 and up. The writing is perfect for 5th or 6th grade level.

I, Funny by James Patterson
I feel funny including one of Patterson’s churned out ghostwritten novels on a recommended list, but honestly, this series has been so beloved by both my boys that I feel like I couldn’t not toss it in here. Obviously this is on the light end as “issues” goes and the writing isn’t as stellar as some on this list. However, there’s a sweetness to this concept and a sensitivity in how Patterson and co-author Grabenstein deal with it. Jamie Grimm wants to be a stand up comedian, but he can’t stand up because he’s permanently in a wheelchair. However, a nationwide contest may be his ticket to fame and humor. This one is perfect for kids who want a mix of light and dark in their reading.
Issues: Physical disabilities, parental death, and adoptive families.
Appropriate for: Any age, though I wouldn’t recommend it as a read aloud. It’s a longer book in terms of page count, but the writing is a very easy read. There are illustrations throughout.

The Book of Marvels

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You may know that some homeschoolers have a bit of a mania for old books. In a lot of circles, older = better. I’m not of that mindset entirely. For one thing, a lot of old books are riddled with racism, sexism, and incorrect or outdated information. Others just aren’t that great and never really were. But every once in awhile, we find a gem.

The Complete Book of Marvels by Richard Halliburton is such a gem. I picked it up to possibly read bits of as part of our geography unit this spring and I have fallen in love with it a little bit. Halliburton was a well known name back in the 1930’s when he was writing and traveling constantly. However, he disappeared (and almost certainly died) in an accident in the Pacific Ocean just before the US entered World War II and his name was mostly forgotten. Now, this book, a compendium of his greatest two-volume work, is tragically out of print.

The book covers several dozen “wonders” all over the world. Halliburton gives background or history about the place and then launches into a sort of second person plural voice, guiding “us” by saying where we step, what we see, what smells waft past us, and how we got there. He has based his telling on his own experiences, of course. The wonders themselves range from places of great natural beauty like Victoria Falls to modern cities like New York to ancient ruins like the Great Wall of China and famous castles like Carcassone. Many of Halliburton’s choices are unexpected. I have to admit that even as a pretty well-versed traveler, a few were basically unknown to me.

It’s a snapshot of the world between the wars. He visits the Soviet Union, colonial Indochina, and even meets Ibn Saud on the outskirts of Mecca. We liked looking at the chapter about our own city, seeing the Mall with just a few scant museums, the patches of trees that are long gone in aerial photos, and the general sense of the city of eighty years ago.

It’s important to note that Halliburton was a man of his time. He assumes a white, Christian, American audience. Multiple echoes of subtle racism pop up throughout. For example, the Europeans of Pompeii are “just like us” but the daily life of the Aztecs was “savage.” Non-white groups often get labeled with wilder adjectives in Halliburton’s writing. It’s something to discuss if you’re attempting to be a culturally sensitive reader but except in a few places, it was manageable as long as we could discuss it and the quality of the book overall offset my problems with it. However, there’s one chapter where I nearly lost my taste for his work. Don’t read the chapter on Timbuctoo. I pre-read it aghast twice. It’s a pretty bizarre tale that involves him alternately trying to indulge and beat (yes, hit) two children who are supposedly slaves (I say supposedly because while I’m sure slavery continued in Timbuktu even after the French outlawed it, I’m not sure if these children were really slaves or not given the story). It’s a pretty ghastly tale, not so much because anything extraordinarily bad happens (beyond the extraordinary evil of slavery in the first place) but because of the complete offhandedness and supposed humor with which he tells it. While he meets with Ibn Saud and marvels at the wonders of India or Japan or other non-white cultures, Halliburton comes off as open-minded and trying his (somewhat limited old time southern American) best to understand and respect the cultures he encounters. But when he goes to the heart of Africa, it all goes out the window and he’s baldly racist.

Luckily, the focus is mostly on the wonders themselves and, in the case of the architectural wonders, the civilizations that built them long ago. What does it feel like to climb Mt. Vesuvius or fly over Mt. Everest or emerge through the doors into Reims Cathedral? What does Angkor Wat really look like? What gives the spray from Iguazu Falls feel like? These are the sorts of questions that dominate the book and are definitely without issue. In those places, the text doesn’t feel old or stilted or out of date at all. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve read a chapter only to have the kids say with wonder, “Can we go there?” It’s because he makes the reader really want to see these places. The language has made wonderful dictation and copywork passages as well. He is a great writer with such vivid descriptions. I can easily see why he became a celebrity at one time.

I know that as classics go, Around the World in 80 Days is a common one to tackle with a geography study. We did read that as well recently. However, this book has been more fun in many ways. It covers more places. And because it’s mostly episodic, we have skipped our way through it a little bit, not reading absolutely everything. Since the book is out of print, if you’re in search, I would say $40 is a steal (that’s about what I paid), but it routinely costs more than double that so check your library. It joins the ranks of other great vintage books we’ve discovered through homeschooling like Grammarland and Builders of the Old World.

Anxiety is Kicking My Butt

Sorry for the lack of posting lately. Sometimes, I feel like I have a lot to say and share with the world. Mostly, I think we do a decent job schooling. I believe in homeschooling. I like to share my ideas, the books I like, the stuff that’s working. But some months, wow, I just feel like a failure. Most of those months are probably Februaries. I should go back and keep some data on that.

Mushroom’s anxiety is what’s killing us lately. It’s amazing what an energy suck anxiety can be. I am smacked with anxiety every once in awhile. I have some things that make me anxious and unsure. Dentistry is especially perilous for me. The dentist once suggested that I get a prescription for valium before coming back. Oy. But generally, I’m not an anxious person. I am pretty confident and happy.

There was a time, as a kid, when I remember going through a really fearful phase. I was probably about seven years old. I remember I thought there were probably monsters under my bed. Such a cliche, I know. But I went around jumping from furniture to furniture and just generally jumping at every little thing. Finally, my mother took me aside and told me a truly terrifying tale. If I continued like this, she said, eventually I would be scared to go outside. My grandfather developed agoraphobia after some serious health problems and he never left his house and yard as a result. Did I want to end up like that? Well, that sure put the fear of fear in me. I remember so clearly thinking that would be a fate worse than death or monsters. And that I’d better just conquer all my fears. And then, for the most part, I just did. I would go out of my way to prove to myself that I didn’t need to be scared, even sticking my feet under the bed in defiance of the monsters.

How I wish I could somehow magically impart whatever it was that made me be more scared of being scared to Mushroom. It’s times like these that make you question your parenting.

Don’t get me wrong. We have strategies and help and all the things you need with an anxious kid, but sometimes I wish I had one of those kids who are like dandelions, who can thrive anywhere, under most any circumstances.

The Fourth Way: DIY Curricula

Be willing to venture out on the rockier path. The Husband and the boys on Billy Goat Trail.
Be willing to venture out on the rockier path. The Husband and the boys on Billy Goat Trail.

These days, I feel like I see people embarking with homeschooling in a few different ways. First of all, some people want to learn without formal materials at all and to see where the unschooling life leads them. A second sort wants everything planned out for them and end up with a box program or enrolling in an online school. A third group treats curricula like a checklist, beginning with a list of subjects and filling in the blanks with various programs.

However, we’re increasingly choosing the fourth way, which is to make the curriculum ourselves.

I don’t see a ton of people doing it this way, but I wanted to tout the benefits of stepping away from the prefabricated options while still “doing school.” It’s my understanding that in the early days of homeschooling, before there were legions of companies eager for homeschool dollars and it was difficult to find a packaged curriculum of any sort, this was much more common.

I’ve written a couple of posts about what this looks like in practice at the rowhouse. (See Anatomy of a Project: Houses and Anatomy of a Project: Dinosaurs as well as Science Without a Net) I tend to begin by compiling a stack of books and other resources and making a loose list of writing assignments, art projects, field trips, experiments, and other things that might take up our time. Other people plan it out with specific readings and timetables. Either way, I think it’s a way of doing school that can work for more people than are doing it at the moment.

For one thing, when you’re the one who did the research and came up with the plan, you’re inevitably more invested in what you’re doing. You know more than when the plan is laid out for you by someone else and are more prepared to respond to rabbit trails and a child’s questions. You also know why each resource was chosen and what its merits are. You believe in the things you’ve chosen and want to use them, unlike when you have a preset list of books and readings, some of which you may actively dislike.

It also allows you to respond to your child’s needs directly. There’s no rereading things the student has already done. All the resources are right for the child’s level. The assignments are made to engage or challenge or remediate your child’s specific needs. You can make a subject that’s dull to your child more interesting by tweaking the focus such as by making history about the history of science or art or making it focused on reading fiction or on not reading at all. You can take a subject that your child is passionate about and make other subjects get covered that way. If a child is passionate about bugs, you read fiction books about bugs, write stories and reports about bugs, draw bugs, eat bugs (the UN says we should try it?), and watch documentaries about bugs. If a child is passionate about Pokemon, you read and write fanfiction and make fan art, you come up with a project like researching which real animals are like which Pokemon or studying biology vocabulary like anatomy terms by looking at Pokemon or studying geography by learning geography terms by looking at Pokemon maps.

Finally, it lets you stay flexible and responsive. Even if planning everything out helps you, when it’s your plan, you know where things can be added or dropped if need be. Not only that, but you’re more likely to stick to it when you can and more likely not to beat yourself up about it when you can’t. After all, you were the one who made it, not some outside entity.

Being willing to take on planning for yourself is intimidating for some people. There’s definitely a learning curve involved. I find the most important thing is figuring out how much can realistically get done. We’re doing a philosophy unit now using several resources and I’m already feeling unsure about whether my original expectations and goals for the unit can be met. Figuring out if you have too many or too few books, the right number of projects or assignments, and the right number of resources for your time can be tricky. It can be tricky both ways. For everyone who ends up with too high expectations and a pile of untouched books, I’m sure there’s someone who thought the project or unit would take much longer or hoped to follow some rabbit trails that never quite emerged or didn’t turn out to have enough appropriate resources to follow.

When you’re planning for yourself, you have to be willing to roll with the punches and make changes. I think the most important thing is to be willing to make mistakes. You have to be willing to ditch a book that isn’t working to look for a better resource. You even have to be willing to ditch an entire topic or plan sometimes. You have to trust that all the reasons you chose to plan for yourself were worth it. You have to trust the process.

On the other side, you also have to be willing to hold yourself accountable. For many people, the appeal of a boxed curriculum is in the preset schedule that tells you, if you haven’t done this, you’re behind and you’d better catch up. Different people have different needs in terms of what makes them accountable. I admit that I find this easier than most people. But if you don’t it doesn’t have to be onerous to make yourself a plan or a checklist. For many people, making a strong routine is good enough. If you need a schedule, make a schedule. It doesn’t even have to list specific resources. It can have a checklist that says, simply, watch a documentary this week. Did you do it? If not, you can’t check it off. Of course, maybe you’ve decided it’s not the right week for one, which is fine, but remember that there was a reason you originally planned it that way. You have to be willing to change your plans, but you also have to be willing to ask yourself if you’re doing it because it’s what’s best for the kids and the unit you’re doing together or if you’re doing it because it’s just easier for you to let go. And if you are letting it go, are you happy with that? It can be a tricky balance. I find I often need to let go of things, but I also often need to push on and make us continue so we can feel satisfied with the work we did.

Just like homeschooling isn’t for everyone, DIYing your curricula isn’t for everyone either. However, I think more people should give it a try these days. Be willing to go without a preset program and see where it takes you.

Opportunities

BalletBoy backstage with ABT at the Kennedy Center. Photo by a fellow cast member. If you think this doesn't look quite like BalletBoy, it's because he's wearing a wig!
BalletBoy backstage with ABT at the Kennedy Center. Photo by a fellow cast member. If you think this doesn’t look quite like BalletBoy, it’s because he’s wearing a wig!

There’s always opportunities in life. Our most recent one was a biggie. BalletBoy auditioned and was accepted as an alternate in two dances for American Ballet Theater’s Sleeping Beauty. If you’re a ballet dork, you probably understand how big that is. If you’re not, I’ll just tell you, it was definitely an honor.

So, of course, he really wanted to do it. And, of course, I was super proud of him. He worked incredibly hard. I had the pleasure of seeing him dance on the big stage in front of the packed audience and I could see why it took so many rehearsals. One of the dances was incredibly intricate. He was so happy.

The price for this opportunity was a week of missed school for the performances, several months of extra ballet in the form of rehearsals, a lot of late nights, a missed performance at the Kennedy Center (I know, the irony that we had tickets to see something else!) and, worst of all, having to dig out of the snow early and miss the prime sledding days.

I don’t know about the rest of you out there, but I struggle with opportunities. And I get sick of all the people who imply or even outright say that you can have it all. You just can’t. You have to make choices. Maybe this is a little bit of a piggyback on my lunch post from a month ago, but I’ve learned that there’s only so much you can do, whether it’s cooking or big, exciting opportunities or even little opportunities.

There are just so many opportunities. Every sunny, warm day is an opportunity to go outside for a hike or a trip to a nice nature spot. Every snowy day is an opportunity to go sledding and build a snowman. There are chances for different field trips and new classes posted on our homeschool board every day. The minute this ballet ended, we got a chance to attend another audition. And then there are the project and curriculum and book opportunities. Sometimes I see things that would be magical and fun and I want to bring them into our homeschool. But there are so many of them. That’s another sort of opportunity.

I am trying to learn to pass up the opportunities and say no to them as often as I can stand it. It really takes strength, but we have to have a balance between the routine and the opportunities, no matter what kind they are. The routine is important too. It makes the opportunities seem all the more magical and special when they arise. So here’s to the roads not taken.

Reading Nonfiction

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A year ago, I got the kids the Horrible Geography box set from a used bookseller. These are some of the least known of the “Horrible” books and have a different author from any of them, but they’re in the same vein. Chapter books with wacky facts and silly titles that are meant to appeal to kids who like a good offbeat story.

I asked Mushroom and BalletBoy to read one for school and it was a huge bust. They hated it. They hated it because they were really struggling with reading nonfiction. I was seeing it across the board as I tried to get them to read things like The Scientist in the Field series or other longer nonfiction books. They simply couldn’t keep focused on most of them.

This came as a big surprise to me. Neither of my boys are precocious or voracious readers, but they were able to tackle meatier fiction books on their level. And we had been reading aloud piles of nonfiction for years. They always seemed to retain something from it, interrupting to discuss and ask questions that indicated they understood it. This was not to say they’re perfect listeners or anything, but I didn’t realize we’d have so many problems with nonfiction.

It was very frustrating. However, I decided to dial us back and focus on that skill. How could I help them get better at independently reading nonfiction and showing that they had grasped what they read? I ended up trying a variety of things and it meant taking them backward to simpler materials.

A few weeks ago, as we started a unit on geography, I asked the kids again to pull one of those unread Horrible Geography books off the shelf. This time, each kid took the book and flew through them in just a few assigned reading sittings then gave me a quick oral narration that showed they had understood what they read. That’s when I realized we had really come a long way on this issue and I’m pleased with what we did.

Here are some of the strategies I’ve been using to help them get better at reading nonfiction:

We backed up to much, much easier nonfiction.
While reading aloud more complex works was an exciting element of hitting the middle school years, I realized they just weren’t ready for reading the same things on their own. Thus, we went backward to reading things like the Who Was biographies, the Adler Picture Book Biography series, and other such simpler fare. I had to recognize that while these seemed too easy for them, a lot of the books I wanted them to read actually had higher reading levels, more like 7th and 8th grade. Plus, when you need to back up, it’s good to find your footing at a level where you can get really comfortable.

We focused on shorter readings.
Most of the read alouds we were up to were things we read over at least a day or two, but I realized for nonfiction practice, the shorter, the better. So while things like the Who Was books were good, they were actually too long in some ways. We needed things that were just a couple of pages. One great source for super short nonfiction pieces are some of the Cricket magazines, such as Muse and Dig.

I resorted to workbooks.
When it became clear that to BalletBoy, the “main idea” was whatever he took from the reading, however obscure the detail, I decided it was time to do some really basic work and bought a Main Ideas and Summarizing workbook during Scholastic Dollar Days. We didn’t even get halfway through with it before he had dramatically improved. Sometimes, it just takes a worksheet.

We used narration.
I started requiring more narration, both written and oral about everything they read. I also insisted that narrations contain the main ideas of what they read. Previously, I had been okay with more meandering narrations or narrations that focused more on their own reactions or on details they found interesting. I pushed them to do narrations that contained more summary and had them redo a lot of narrations for awhile.

We did more buddy reading.
While using worksheets was useful for BalletBoy, Mushroom needed a lot more of this technique. He’s not quite as strong a reader and tends to skip words when he’s flustered so making him slow down and read aloud was good, as was reading alongside him to help him when he got stuck.

We moved into articles for adults.
As they got a little better at reading, instead of moving to longer and more complex children’s books, we moved into reading news articles, typically about science or culture. While written for a general adult audience, these pieces were shorter and that was the key. They couldn’t read a long National Geographic article, but they could tackle a three or four page article from National Geographic’s History magazine, which turned out to be a good resource. Sources that have “Article of the Week” links were also good since they were specially chosen news articles for the classroom. Keeping things short meant they could read and not get lost in what they were reading about, even if the language and topic got a little more complex.

I let them pick their reading.
Practicing this skill was more important than me assigning specific readings and having some level of control can go a long way, so I usually gave them some level of choice about what to read. Even when I wanted them to read about a specific subject, such as last semester’s dinosaurs unit, I would spread out an array of different books for them to choose from. That’s one of the benefits of a decent library.

My 16 Favorite Fantasy Books and Series for Kids and Teens

If you read my post last week, you’ll know that I recently had to come to terms with the fact that Mushroom and BalletBoy, while they may enjoy an occasional jaunt through a fantasy novel, just aren’t true aficionados of the genre and might never be (though apparently I can hold out hope that they’ll learn to appreciate it better). Still, I was a complete fantasy nut as a kid so I give you my absolute favorites. Most are from my own childhood though a few are newer, but even those appeal to the middle school reader in me. They’re in no particular order below. Note that these aren’t “the best fantasy books ever.” They’re my favorites, particularly my favorites for younger readers.

A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle
I waffled about listing “The Time Quartet” (or Quintet) but decided that really, for me, it was all about these two books, which stand alone just fine, while the others are fine, but nowhere near as good as these two. In the first one Meg and her little brother Charles Wallace travel through other dimensions to rescue their father, who is held captive on another planet. In the latter, Charles Wallace, now a teen, travels through time Quantum Leap style while Meg, now a young adult, helps him from the present by linking to his mind. Both books are completely genre-breaking and weird by any summary, but both work and spoke deeply to me as a kid about good and evil. L’Engle’s liberal Christian theology bleeds through in both.
Perfect for: About age 10-12, when kids are first ready to think deeper about stories.
Appropriate for: Any kid who can deal with the darker themes. Planet in particular has some violence and a couple of shocking events, though nothing gory.

The Young Wizards by Diane Duane
I found this series, which still gets new additions every once in awhile, when I was in college. It follows Nita and her best friend Kit as they become wizards in the modern world and have to deal with quests. The big good and evil themes are very present in these books and I love the way Duane blends the modern, urban world with those big good and evil battles. It’s also fun to see Nita and Kit take on evil across the galaxy and then come home to chores and sibling rivalry. A great bonus is that unlike many of the books on this list, this series does a great job with diverse characters and with gender roles. Kit is Latino. Later books have an autistic character who is handled very well. This series hasn’t been in vogue in awhile, but it’s so good.
Perfect for: Kids who ran out of Madeleine L’Engle books and want more in that vein.
Appropriate for: Any kid okay with darker themes like death.

The Crestomanci Books by Diana Wynne Jones
I read a tiny smattering of Jones’s work as a kid, but it was only later that I realized how much she had written and how amazing her books are. This series is probably her most accessible to readers who haven’t encountered her before, but it’s also my favorite. Crestomanci is an enchanter who helps regulate magic for the government, but in some of the books, as a kid, he gets into all kinds of mischief. All of Jones’s books wind you around through a maze and spit you out the other side. I especially love The Lives of Christopher Chant. For the most part, these can be read in any order, which is just an indication of what a great and slightly twisty writer Jones was.
Perfect for: Doctor Who Fans. Really, it has that feel sometimes.
Appropriate for: Any kid who can keep up with the plot twists.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
This is the best Arthurian retelling in my opinion, beating out any others (and I read a lot as a kid) by far. In some ways, it’s just a straight retelling of King Arthur and his knights. In other ways, it turns the whole story into something completely new, a psychological exploration of power and justice. The opening section, about Arthur’s boyhood, shape shifting with Merlin, was reworked into Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. For many fantasy lovers, White’s book stands with The Lords of the Rings and Gormenghast as some of the greatest British fantasy ever written.
Perfect for: A kid ready for a really dense read.
Appropriate for: The first section can be read as a standalone and is appropriate for anyone. The rest of the book isn’t graphic, but it is a lot more grown up and includes the affairs and jealousies of adult relationships and marriages.

The Hero in the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
It’s impossible to explain how much I adore these books. They’re connected only loosely as they take place hundreds of years apart. The first is much for traditional feeling fantasy, about a girl who fights dragons. The second takes place in a world where an imaginary British-like empire has conquered most of the magical lands without ever realizing there was magic in them. McKinley’s writing is rich and paints a vivid picture of Damar. The Hero in the Crown won a Newbery.
Perfect for: Me, age 12.
Appropriate for: There’s a veiled reference to sex in the first book, but it’s very veiled. Both books have romance as a central theme and feel very YA, but they’re not inappropriate for younger readers if they pick them up.

The Belgariad by David Eddings
This is a thick five book series originally written for adults but which is now being read by older kids and teens pretty regularly and sometimes sold as one big, fat volume. It follows a boy, Garion, as he realizes his destiny to fight a giant battle against a god. As an adult, I can see that Eddings’s world is problematic, in large part because it’s so segregated and borderline racist. The darker skinned characters are the baddies. And being good or bad is determined in large part by your race and culture. And while there are several strong female characters, it’s a man’s world rife with sexism. I have extremely mixed feelings about all that, but I also remember how much I enjoyed the vivid cast of characters and the epic qualities of the story. I think it’s still worth enjoying by kids who are able to understand what elements of the set up aren’t so good.
Perfect for: Slightly older kids who want to sink their teeth into a big fantasy adventure.
Appropriate for: Because these were first written for adults, there are numerous references to drinking (but note that characters generally suffer when they drink too much) and sex, though nothing graphic is described. Also note the above about sexism and racism. I wouldn’t suggest this series for a kid before they were ready to be a little critical of those elements, even if it was with guidance.

The Dark is Rising Series by Susan Cooper
This series is hard to explain if you haven’t read it. There are a couple of books about some average kids and another few that focus on a boy with magical powers to bend time and space. Along with an old man who is secretly Merlin in the modern day, they work for the side of the light and against the mysterious dark. Lots of Arthurian tidbits continually come into play. Mushroom and BalletBoy really liked the first book, where the average siblings find the Holy Grail, but they found the next one, about the magical boy, harder to enjoy. It’s my favorite. I loved that young Will had a secret identity and was sometimes normal and other times wise beyond his years. The jumps in time and place were interesting to me as a kid and, of course, those big good and evil themes came into play. This series has much denser and richer language than a lot of fantasy being written for kids today. Note that the film version of the titular series book is dreadful. Avoid at all costs.
Perfect for: Fans of rhyming prophesies in fantasy books, Arthurian nuts, fantasy weirdos. Really, these books are classics, but they’re also a bit hard to pin down.
Appropriate for: Any child who can keep up with the language.

Tales of Magic by Edward Eager
This series includes Eager’s wonderful classic Half-Magic, which is probably my favorite. In that book, four siblings acquire the ability to use magic wishes, but the wishes only ever work halfway, making them half invisible or sending them halfway on a journey. Later books include other sorts of magic that comes and then goes, giving the siblings a brief bout of adventure before their mundane lives resume. While the plots are fantastic, the siblings and their relationships feel very real. All Eager’s books feel very much like real magic games kids play come to life. This is one of the few series Mushroom and BalletBoy also genuinely loved, perhaps because they feel so much like real life with pretend.
Perfect for: Read alouds once your kids are really into their read alouds.
Appropriate for: Anyone at all.

The Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
This series was an adult discovery for me. I only found it a few years ago, but I was blown away by its complexity and good writing. The main character, Gen, is the titular thief, who must steal something very important. To say much more would give away the first book, which is by far the best. As the series goes on, it changes, covering politics and intrigue as well as romance in the complex world Turner created. That world is very realistic with very few supernatural elements, making it mostly just an imagined universe and not a traditional fantasy setting.
Perfect for: Kids who want “good” fantasy YA.
Appropriate for: There’s nothing inappropriate, but the characters are all adults and the romance in the later books feels very grown up. I wouldn’t suggest it before 12 or 13 to most kids.

Dragonsong and Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffery
Most of McCaffery’s Dragon books aren’t really for kids, though these two absolutely are and they’re also by far the best of the bunch. On a planet where the weather can be literally deadly if you don’t have proper shelter, Menolly lives alone and finds tiny dragons before moving to the Harper Hall to play music. Because these were a tiny duo of books (there’s also a third that’s nowhere near as good and follows another character) meant for younger readers inside a vast series, the world building is impeccable and complex yet totally accessible to new readers.
Perfect for: Girls who like music and dragons.
Appropriate for: Any age, but note that the other Dragonrider series have a lot more adult content and the final book is this trilogy, Dragondrums, also has a lot more romance, including a brief but not terribly veiled pre-sex scene.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
This was my real gateway drug into fantasyland as a child. Through the wardrobe I went and I never totally returned. The books follow the magical land of Narnia over time and the children from Earth who stumble into visiting there. I feel like it has to be said that the books are a Christian allegory, something that I didn’t quite get as a child, but which is beyond obvious as an adult. I don’t mind this most of the time. Lewis is an interesting Christian thinker and I appreciate the elements of Christianity he brings to fantasy. However, The Horse and his Boy is beyond racist and anti-Muslim. I think it’s worth just pulling out of the box set and hiding, to be honest. The final book is also a conundrum, being a book with numerous references to Revelations and an interpretation of both adult life and Narnia that never sat very comfortably with me, honestly. Still, the magic and story in the first books is so excellent. The messages about faith and belief were also ones that have stuck with me for a long time.
Perfect for: Reading aloud the moment kids are ready for it.
Appropriate for: Children before they’ve become too analytical. Seriously, I think these are better read before you can see the Christian allegory.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
I’m a bit too old to have read these as a kid. In fact, my own kids were tiny when I dragged them to a release party to get my copy of the final book. While I can only assume no one needs a summary, the series follows Harry, an orphan, as he attends a school for wizards and learns the tools he needs to take up his destiny and fight Voldemort, the wizard who killed his parents. Like everyone else, I loved these books and I even can say that (gasp), the fifth one where Harry is just so mad may actually be my favorite. Oh, teenagers.
Perfect for: Everyone on the planet, apparently.
Appropriate for: A lot has been made in many families about making kids wait on this series. While obviously there are some dark parts to the ending, the writing is much easier than many of the books on this list and the dark stuff is pretty mild when you come down to it. In some families, the kids are reading things I think are just as dark or even more so while being told not yet for Harry Potter. While I wouldn’t suggest them to younger kids per se, I think they’re fine for any kid who really wants to tackle them, even accelerated younger readers.

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
This series is, for me, one of the best examples of classic fantasy ever written. It follows Taran as he goes from lowly pigkeeper to epic hero. The setting and characters are drawn from Welsh mythology and have a very pre-medieval feel. As a child, this set me off on a strange love of all things Welsh that I’ve never really given up. Just seeing a Welsh flag with a dragon on it still gives me a little warm fuzzy for no reason I have any right to. The final book in the series earned a well-deserved Newbery award.
Perfect for: Kids who have exhausted all the easy, breezy fun fantasy of today and want something with more depth.
Appropriate for: Anyone who can keep up with the language and plot, which are a little dense by today’s standards. There are some darker themes and scary bad guys.

Moomintroll Books by Tove Janssen
These books are so odd and charming. I especially adore Comet in Moominland. All the books follow the odd Moomins, a family of funny looking creatures, and their various friends. It’s hard to say what happens in any of them exactly, because even though there are floods and panics and robberies and so forth, you come away from all the books feeling simply like you got to dwell in another place with some strange characters for a little while. And when I say strange, I really do mean strange. When they were younger, BalletBoy and Mushroom really liked these whimsical tales.
Perfect for: Read alouds for kids who like odd stories.
Appropriate for: Anyone and everyone.

The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins
In many ways, I like this series better than Collins’s much better known Hunger Games. It also uses many of the same themes about how much we control our own fates when others are trying to use us and the long term effects of violence on individuals. Despite those dark sounding themes, this is a story about a boy and his baby sister who stumble into an underground world populated by intelligent rats, mice, and bugs. The main character Gregor may be part of a prophesy. These books were obviously a more recent discovery for me, but I really love them. One of the things I love is that unlike so much fantasy, the book features non-white characters as the heroes, not the villains.
Perfect for: Animal fantasy lovers.
Appropriate for: Any child who can deal with some of the darker themes and violence. Note that even though the violence features animals for the most part, sometimes it’s pretty grim, such as a mouse genocide that Gregor sees from afar.

The Earthsea Books by Ursula K. LeGuin
In high school, an English class I was in used the first volume of these books as an introduction to archetypes in literature. It illustrates one of the great things about fantasy books: the metaphors and symbolism is often more overt and complex than in other works, making them excellent first books to deconstruct and discuss in depth. The main books follow the wizard Ged. I remember that as a young reader, I especially loved the power of words and names in Earthsea and the way the magic system worked. These are considered some of the most influential fantasy classics out there.
Perfect for: All fantasy lovers. They should be required reading.
Appropriate for: Anyone who can keep up with the language and plot. They’re definitely intended for a YA audience, though there’s nothing inappropriate for younger readers.

 

Boing Boing Boing

I rarely recommend products here (and I’m not getting anything out of it this time), but I want to tout the awesomeness of our mini trampoline.

All the photos I tried to get were this blurry.
All the photos I tried to get were this blurry.

It’s a Jumpsport. We bought it a few years ago when we decided we needed more of an indoor energy outlet and I wish I had bought it years before. However, my experience with mini trampolines had been pretty negative. They creak noisily and don’t have a ton of fun bounce.

Someone recommended that I look at a Bellicon mini trampoline because the design is completely different. Most mini trampolines use metal springs. The springs are what creak and you can even get caught on them. The design for this other type of trampoline involved large bungee cords instead, so no creak and a higher bounce. To help with the bounce, the trampoline is also up on taller legs. At time, the cheapest Bellicons I could find were more than $600, which I wasn’t willing to pay. I was sold that a bungee trampoline was the way to go, so in looking around, I found the Jumpsport, which was a cheaper option. I decided to risk buying it. It was still a lot more than a traditional mini-trampoline, even if it was a deal next to the Bellicon. Now there are others that use the same bungee design, so there are even more options now, but we’ve been really happy with the Jumpsport.

We adore this trampoline. I can’t even begin to say how much use it has gotten over the years. In fact, it got so much use that when I looked at the cords not long ago, I realized that several of them had worn out so I ordered a new set from the company and restrung the whole thing. Now it has brand new bounce, which is pretty exciting.

Every time someone is freaking out, or upset, or fidgeting, or has energy to burn, they just go to the trampoline and jump. Sometimes, the kids jump on the trampoline off and on for hours. Sometimes, they sit on it to do math or other work, even though they can’t bounce. It’s just such a beloved spot. It is the best tool for cheering up and focusing that I know of. Basically, if you don’t have a mini trampoline in your house, you’re missing out. It’s one of the most important school tools I know of.