Finding Empathy

One of the amazing things about watching kids grow up is watching them evolve as aware humans. Little kids are, by their nature, mostly self-centered. They have these moments of deep kindness, but also moments of sheer lack of understanding of others’ emotions or views.

One of the most beautiful things about having adolescents is seeing them fully emerge from that younger, naturally narcissistic viewpoint, to becoming kids who can really appreciate others, and empathize with them.

I feel like with teens, they can be moody, prickly, and self-centered at times. It can be easy to fall into this trap of seeing them as uncaring or unfeeling toward others. But the reality is that they’re not. One reason that young adolescents sometimes seem extra concerned with their image is that they can suddenly see that not everyone sees the world or themselves the way they do.

I think, as a parent, you have to catch them being their best selves. You have to catch them when they’re coming out of their shells to do kind things.

BalletBoy spent all year volunteering at his ballet studio, teaching a class of little kids. He did several volunteer stints at a soup kitchen by his own request. When he passes homeless people on the street, he stops and gives them his own money.

Recently, our lives were upended very briefly when we rushed to be at my grandmother’s side as she lay in hospice, dying. Every time he came into the room, Mushroom went to her side and greeted her. Even after she lost consciousness, he spoke to her and told her he was there and that he loved her. He didn’t shy away from holding her hand or touching her.

You guys, teens are the best. Young kids are special and wonderful too, but teens have so much more understanding and nuance. We’re really just at the start of the teenage journey, and I like to gripe about it sometimes. They are moody and sarcastic and all the things teenagers are. They ignore me and roll their eyes too. But they also have these moments of empathy and caring that go beyond the gestures I saw from them when they were little. It’s so beautiful and I can’t wait to see how they continue to grow.

The boys hugging their great-grandmother last fall.

Middle Schoolers

I mentioned before that I’m working on a book about homeschooling middle school. Then I joked on social media that another one of the things I’m not doing is blogging, but I really am working on this.

It’s amazing to me that there aren’t more resources targeted to homeschoolers and prospective homeschoolers about how middle school is the right time for homeschooling. I believe in homeschooling these difficult, glorious, crazy years so much! They’re so rewarding. The relationship you’ll have with your kids is so rewarding. The teaching and learning you’ll do is so rewarding. I know it’s not for everyone. Homeschooling never will be. But middle school. Think about it.

Anyway, with that in mind, below is a little except of what I’ve been working on.

Look at those grown up kids!

The kid you start middle school with will not be the kid you finish with.

The kid you start sixth grade with will probably be short. They will probably still have toys and enjoy some imaginative play, even if the toys are now more collectables and the imaginative play is sophisticated. They’ll still love playgrounds and enjoy children’s museums. Your son will still have a little kid voice. Your daughter may not be wearing a bra yet. They’ll probably be comfortable in their bodies and confident on the playground. Most of them will be natural early risers and may even get up before you if you’re not a morning person.

They’ll start out in all different places academically, but it won’t be unusual if your new sixth grader can’t yet write an essay or a short story on their own or still struggles with things like operations with fractions. Even your gifted writers will probably sound young in their writing. They’ll often be more focused on facts and trivia than deeper analysis. A lot of them will still be very black and white in how they see the world, with everything either good or evil and not a lot in between. While they’ll be well past learning to cut a straight line with scissors, a sizable number may still struggle with small motor skills that you keep thinking they “should” have mastered by now, like neatly measuring the flour or not overusing all the glue.

The kid you graduate eighth grade with will be tall. Your daughters will likely be close to their adult heights. They’ll look mature and be able to wear adult clothes. They’ll be ready to start shaving if they choose. Your sons will still be growing, but many of them will be taller than their mothers with shoes as big as their father’s. A few of them may have even shaved for the first time. Their bodies will surprise even them sometimes. Your boys may bump into things because they don’t realize they take up so much space. Even your girls may seem to regress in their physical abilities for awhile. Hopefully, they’re starting to be comfortable in these new bodies by the time they head to high school, but it’s not unusual for many of them not to be completely at ease yet. They’ll like to sleep in and may even need to be prodded out of bed every morning to ensure that they don’t stay up half the night.

They’ll mostly be finished playing with toys and make believe. Their interests will feel more grown up. The kid who loved to play will be channeling it into sports even more than before, the kid who loved imaginary games will be playing roleplaying games, the kid who loved to color will be doing art with more serious materials, the kid who loved to tinker will be building things that are more sophisticated. It’ll be a subtle difference, but their interests will seem serious and not like childhood fancies.

Academically, they’ll still be all over the place, but the leaps in skill you’ll see will be stunning. Barring learning differences, your student who struggled to write a paper will sort of have the hang of it. Your student who kept forgetting how to add fractions will be puzzling out algebra problems. Your students who started out ahead of their peers may be dipping into college lectures and work worthy of high school credits. The students who seemed to revel in trivia and expertise will have mostly moved away from listing fact after fact to ask you big questions. In fact, they’ll all be asking these big questions more often, and be more interested in questions that don’t have easy, black and white answers.

Like I said, the kid you finish middle school with won’t be the kid you started with.

Different Paths, Same Endpoint

Way back in first grade, we started with MEP Math, which I adored, but which turned out to be all wrong for both my kids at that point. When both the kids were frustrated by MEP’s tricky problems, I pulled out Math Mammoth and tried that.

BalletBoy took to the Math Mammoth immediately. He liked that it was so straightforward. It made him practice a good bit, but he didn’t mind that, especially when I didn’t make him do all the problems. In fact, BalletBoy kept doing Math Mammoth all the way through fourth grade math. At that point, the Math Mammoth shine seemed to wear off. The order of topics got a little confusing for him. So we jumped ship. We tried a number of different things, including almost a full year’s worth of the Singapore program, Math in Focus, which was great, but also didn’t quite work for him.

In the end, we went back to MEP Math. BalletBoy finished out his elementary math doing MEP. This time, the tricky problems worked for him. Knowing that he was good at math that emphasized following strong examples and just getting in the practice, I got a vintage copy of Dolciani’s Pre-Algebra: An Accelerated Course to use with him. It was perfect and he did the whole book.

On the other hand, Mushroom found Math Mammoth just as stressful and confusing as he had found MEP Math. For several months, I didn’t make him do anything formal for math. He read living math books and played math games. At some point, I let him try Miquon Math and finally we had found something that clicked. Mushroom did so incredibly well with Miquon that I came to adore the program. Unlike BalletBoy’s Math Mammoth, this was a program that inspired me as a teacher. The number relationships and the huge flexibility of the Cuisenaire Rods as a learning tool was perfect.

When Mushroom ran out of Miquon books, he turned to Beast Academy, which unfortunately only had a few volumes out at the time. However, he did them all. He started talking about how much he loved math. While he never became a fast worker, he was sometimes an incredible problem solver with math. He could think creatively about it. I really credited that to Miquon. He thought about math in a much simpler, straightforward way than his twin.

When we ran out of Beast Academy books, he continued his eclectic math path. He did a lot of the Key to Math books, as well as some problem solving books, like the Ed Zaccaro books. I started him on Jousting Armadillos, which is a pre-algebra program. Unfortunately, the amount of writing focus in that program was all wrong for him. He finished it, but barely. We took a math break, then he started in on Jacobs’s Mathematics: A Human Endeavor, which started to re-invigorate his love of math, though he never quite regained it. Mushroom has a lot of anxiety about academics in general, even though he keeps making good progress.

Having liked Jacobs’s other books, I chose Jacobs for Mushroom’s algebra program. Since BalletBoy did so well with Dolciani’s pre-algebra, I assumed he would continue with Dolciani’s algebra program. However, partway through the year, BalletBoy hit a major snag with algebra and I hit a major snag in teaching it. Since I was loving Jacobs, we made the switch.

That means that, for the first time since the very beginning of first grade, my twins are heading into high school finishing the exact same math program, at more or less the same pace.

It’s fascinating to me how different their paths have been. BalletBoy continues to be a “get it done” math student for the most part. He sometimes gets very stuck in his thinking and I have to tell him to stop and try again the next day. He argues with me about math, only to realize he’s completely wrong when he tries to do the problem. Mostly he likes to do his work and he tends to score well, especially if the problem sets are repetitive. If he gets to one he doesn’t understand, he’s liable to skip it and happily go on to the next problem. Overall, he’s in very good shape for finishing algebra.

Mushroom meandered through so many different math concepts. He continues to be a slow worker. While he doesn’t like to admit it, he does better when he can get engrossed in a few very challenging problems instead of a lot of repetitive practice. He second guesses himself and refuses to move on until he understands, which can be good, but can also bring down his scores on tests.

Despite all these differences, Jacobs’s Elementary Algebra has been great for both of my students. It’s not a perfect program, but it has enough challenges and enough practice. It has engaging introductions and enough example problems. It’s really a thorough and great program. I’m also just thrilled to be back teaching the same math again!

I also think there’s something to be said here about letting kids take their own paths through math. It’s okay to take different ways through the material. In the end, you’re going to emerge in more or less the same place.

Come See Me at SEA!

Guess what? I’m going to be speaking at the SEA Homeschool Conference in July. If you don’t know SEA, they’re the Secular Eclectic Academic Homeschoolers. They have a super active to bursting Facebook group and this is their second annual conference. I’m excited to be there representing Simplify Homeschool.

I’m going to be talking about one of my favorite topics: middle schoolers, and how to survive having them in your homeschool! I’m also going to be talking about how to move from a more relaxed, unschoolish influenced homeschool to a more rigorous one when you need to, and back again when it’s time for that.

If you’re planning on going, I’d love to greet you there! I’m already dreading being socially awkward with everyone though!

 

Things We Aren’t Doing

We haven’t been field tripping much. But hey, here’s us getting on the Metro. We must have been somewhere!

I’m really firmly of the belief that you just cannot do it all. I know some people look at our lives and think, gosh, Farrar sure is killing it at this homeschool thing. I think we’re doing okay. And we’re definitely killing it at some things. On the other hand, every time I hear about things a friend is doing that we’re not, I similarly think, gee, friend sure is killing it at homeschooling. I wish I was too!

We’re drawn to admiring the things we’re not accomplishing ourselves, I think. But in order to have room to do the things we do accomplish, we have to drop things that are good practices. There’s just not enough hours for all the wonderful things in the world. You have to make choices. But choices are good! They let us focus. And we can always change our focus if we need to. But it’s good not to live in regret too much. It’s okay that we’re not doing everything. We’re doing other things.

With that in mind, instead of the things we are doing, here are some things we’re not doing.

We’re not taking weekly field trips.
When the kids were little, we were out somewhere awesome and educational practically every other day. Nowadays? Well, we did have a wonderful, full day at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History a few weeks ago. Mushroom went to a bunch of astronomy lectures and stargazing opportunities in the fall. But overall, we are just not on the go with field trips and opportunities constantly. We’re too busy with classes and things like trying to get through algebra.

We’re not reading aloud.
I always said I’d keep reading aloud all through middle school. However, with kids who don’t get home to even eat dinner until nearly 9 pm many nights a week, it’s just not happening.

We’re not practicing standardized testing.
We were so on this in the fall. And we’ll get back on it again. But right now, it’s fallen by the wayside. Sometimes things slip away that we need to do. Eventually, I drag them back and reimplement them. This is probably going to be one of those things throughout high school. I can tell already.

We can’t speak Spanish.
We can’t speak any foreign languages. Well, I know some Chinese and a smattering of leftover high school French. But we’re not doing any language instruction. After struggling through it for the last year and a half with BalletBoy, I finally gave up. I already have a plan for implementing Spanish with an online tutor come fall so that the boys can get their needed high school credits in it. I sometimes feel guilty that I didn’t push a foreign language earlier, but it is what it is. Nothing to do but move forward.

We’re not hanging out at the park day.
I’m a huge proponent of getting in open social time. But we haven’t been hanging out at the teen-centric park day. We’ve just been too busy with structured things.

We’re not doing history.
The other day, I realized that this term, no one is studying history. Mushroom is studying geography and foreign affairs in a local class. BalletBoy put more science leaning topics like anatomy on his plate for this term. History is my subject! I was a history major. I taught history in my school career! But… it’s not happening now at the Rowhouse.

We don’t have a great morning routine.
I miss the days when we had a strong morning routine. I left “morning work” out for the kids. It was warm ups like logic problems, silly creative coloring pages, and worksheet math drills disguised as games. When I came downstairs to start the day, we’d go over the morning work and then start on the sofa with reading aloud. We did this nearly every single day for years. These days, everyone gets up at different times. The kids check emails and youtube feeds. They munch waffles and ignore me. They start with different subjects. It’s just not a strong start. But I haven’t had the energy to make a change. I’ve put that energy elsewhere.

Podcasting and Stuff

I usually use this blog to talk about our homeschool and books, but since one of the things I’m up to lately with homeschooling is working for Simplify to help other people homeschool, I thought I’d talk about how fulfilling that has been so far. We’re a new business, but it’s been fun to work with such wonderful fellow homeschool moms, all of us with our own experiences and expertises.

I think the most fun part has been learning to podcast. We’ve done lighter topics, like field trips, and more nuts and bolts ones, like tips for the Common App. I get to put on my headphones and hook up my mic. It keeps harkening me back to my college radio days, running the old fashioned sound board and cueing up records. It’s also just surprisingly fun. I think we’re not bad at it either.

One of the tough things about homeschooling and educating for me is recognizing that all this experience I’ve had in education really amounts to something valuable and worthwhile. Before I started homeschooling, I had a degree and career in education, but it’s easy to forget, especially in the homeschool world, where people want you to do all kinds of things for free, that once you’ve been at this for a long time, that you have expertise that is valuable. And while I still love helping people out, especially in my network of friends, it’s not something that I have to give away for free.

Anyway, check out our awesome podcasts here. I think our episode about middle school was especially good, and I’m currently working on a book that I hope to put out soon about middle school homeschooling and how important it is. Can you believe there are almost no books specifically about homeschooling the middle school years? Yet (and I say this constantly), if you’re going to homeschool one time of life, I really think you should make it middle school.

And if you need homeschool help – someone to help you transition to more formal schooling, to apply to private school, to help you write a transcript, to figure out how to deschool, to apply to college, or anything really, then visit us at Simplify.

Portfolios Then and Now

Third grade vs. Eighth grade. Obviously, the thick third grade portfolio wins, right?

One of the things I find myself thinking about a good bit in the last couple of years is how homeschooling changes over time. It ebbs and flows. It has high and low points, as well as more and less intensive times.

A few weeks ago, we did our first updates for the 8th grade portfolios. If you read this blog often, you’ll know that we use portfolio assessment and update each year’s portfolio periodically with the most recent work samples and lists of things like books and field trips.

After we finished the updates I had a moment of panic. You see, it was really, really thin. I’m used to portfolios being these things that just burst open with work. You can see the comparison of Mushroom’s third grade portfolio with his portfolio this year. The third grade one was breaking open with projects and drawings that barely fit. The eighth grade one… not so much.

Third grade work and eighth grade work in Mushroom’s portfolios.

The thing is, it represents so much time and effort. There’s less of the fun little projects, coloring pages, random artworks, and participation certifications. But each plastic sleeve holds a multi-page, revised essay or an algebra exam or a page of samples of Mushroom’s digital artwork projects in Photoshop.

As I looked through this year’s samples, it’s less quantity, but more quality that reflects solid work for their age.

I think it’s important to always remind myself to stay focused on the work that matters, which is mostly process oriented and invisible for things like portfolios. The products change as they get older and that’s appropriate and good. There’s no need to look for those piles of fun worksheet puzzles and quick art projects. It’s good to move on.