Why We’re Practicing for Standardized Testing Now

I could rant and rail for a little while about standardized testing and how much I can’t stand it and how detrimental one size fits all approaches to assessment make me nuts, and how most multiple choice tests are the equivalent of a broken thermometer in terms of assessing student learning and potential, but I’ll just leave it at this…

I really dislike high stakes testing.

That’s why we’ve mostly avoided it in our homeschool. We did dip into doing a practice assessment test one year a few years back, but I wasn’t sure that we got much out of it. It didn’t tell me much and the kids hated it.

However, last year, I decided to have the kids take the ITBS, aka, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. It’s a relatively easy, nationally normed test.

It was a bit of a disaster. Not the scores. The scores were fine. The things they excel at, they scored highly on compared to their peers. The things they aren’t as great at, they scored mediocre, though not abysmally, compared to their peers.

No, the problem was Mushroom and his anxiety. Plus, it really brought home for me how little practice they’ve had on testing like this. They’re really bright at many things, but knowing how to game a multiple choice test and what sort of questions are on there just isn’t one of them.

That’s why, beginning this year, we’ve started prepping for the SAT and ACT, as well as generally prepping for any other standardized tests they might take in high school, such as AP exams.

I know. It’s a little nuts. They’re in eighth grade. However, this isn’t as far off as all that. We’re using simple prep materials and doing very little overall. We’re only spending half an hour a week on the weeks we do it. On the morning I go to yoga and they are busy with co-op for most of the day, they do a little practice and we go over it later.

My feeling is that you don’t want this to sneak up on kids. And while Mushroom and BalletBoy are smart, they’re not such academic superstars that they don’t need this explicit practice in order to excel. I would rather do this than spend a several months trying to pull up an unexpectedly low score that’s keeping them from their goals three years from now. Overall, I think a little bit spread over time goes a lot farther for both peace of mind and performance than a panicked need to cram beforehand.

However, the main reason is that I think it may genuinely take three years of occasional practice with this type of testing to get Mushroom to the point where his anxiety doesn’t sabotage him when he heads into a test that actually means something for his future, no matter what it may be. The best cure for a phobia is slow exposure. I don’t really understand how he acquired this one, having been so little exposed to this sort of testing and my having taken such pains to be gentle about the few exposures he has had. However, it’s a phobia and the process of getting used to it is definitely better if it’s done in a slow and deliberate way.

In the end, I still think standardized tests are a poor measure of a student. The ones that have been slapdash thrown together for Common Core are especially terrible and the barrage of multiple tests every year for students is harmful and not conductive for learning. However, as we go forward, at least a couple of standardized tests will be part of life for Mushroom and BalletBoy, so it’s only common sense to start preparing early so there’s time to be relaxed about it.

 

The Planners

Drumroll please.

For the very first time, I have embarked on using a paper planner.

I’ve always done some planning of some kind, but never the kind that involved a long term planner. The kids have had their own planners for a few years. I write assignments in those and help them keep a calendar. I also use some of the pages for goal setting with them and keeping track of other things, like chores or books they’ve read. However, it’s not especially fancy.

This year, I decided that I would track hours to see how much time we’re actually spending on school. One way to award credits in high school is to track how long you spend on a subject and award credits based on “contact hours.” The thing is, I’ve never tracked our time before and I have no concept if we’re already spending that sort of volume of hours or not. I am also trying to be a little more organized about tracking things like audiobooks and field trips. I list these when I go to update the portfolios, but I can’t tell you how many times over the years that making that list of just a few items has turned into a mental memory Olympics for me as I struggle to recall what book we read before the one we’re listening to now but after that other one.

I already rely heavily on my online calendar app, Cozi (which I highly recommend as the best one I’ve tried for families, by the way), so I wasn’t interested in having a detailed calendar. Instead, I wanted to keep track of those big picture things like books, credit hours, ongoing projects, and so forth.

I made my own hours tracking sheets where each hour is a circle. I’m not totally sure if this is the best way, but I’m enjoying coloring them in during school time.

For the other pages, I tweaked some of the multitudes of free planner pages offered by Scattered Squirrel to be more homeschool appropriate. I made lots of pages for lists, both of things I’m thinking of for the future and of things we’ve done. I also made monthly focus pages for goals for myself and places to jot down field trips and other things that are going on.

To bind it, I bought the Staples ARC notebook. These are ring binder notebooks. You can buy a notebook and customize it or buy the rings and cover separately. Staples sells paper of various kinds for it and you can buy special paper for it from Etsy shops as well, but if you want to print your own, you need a hole punch that’s specially made for the ring binder notebook system. I bought a cheap one for about ten dollars that can only punch a couple of pages at a time, but since I only had a few dozen pages, that was okay. So far, I’ve been happy with how easy this was to put together and how well it’s holding up. I was unsure about the paper staying really well, but it seems to be fine. It’s easy to remove but stays in place nicely and the pages turn easily and lay flat.

So far, I’ve kept it up, but it’s only been a month. I tend to think that organization systems work well at first, tend toward chaos, and then have to be brought back in line at some point. We’ll see how this one goes long term. For now, I’m enjoying having a

Education is Not a Mystery

This is not socializing, apparently.

Did you see this post on Popsugar about homeschooling and socialization? It’s basically crap, but it made the rounds on a few online corners of homeschooling.

Obviously the arguments about socialization in there are absurd. I mean, there’s no way to teach those skills without a traditional classroom? I can think of dozens off the top of my head, most of which homeschool families I know use. My personal favorite, which you probably already know, is Destination Imagination, which is nothing like being in a traditional classroom. Or maybe it’s the small, kid-run learning co-op we’ve been a part of for eight years.

But I digress. Because as silly as the socialization arguments were in that piece, it wasn’t the thing that really bugged me.

The thing that really bugged me was the way in which professional educators try to justify themselves by making learning seem like it’s a secret, arcane mystery that only they can unlock. Socialization isn’t learning to play with, talk to, and interact with other people. Oh no. “Educational socialization is much more challenging than that,” the post claims. So much more challenging that only real teachers in real classrooms can really do it.

Remember in To Kill a Mockingbird when the teacher is angry that Scout learned to read at home because she couldn’t have done it the “right” way? Seen any of the viral images of Common Core math where parents talk about how they’re no longer “allowed” to help with their second grader’s math homework because they’ll explain it “wrong”? Ever heard an educator throw around half-nonsense jargon at an IEP meeting?

Educators seem to do this all the time, trying to make it sound like they guard complex knowledge that only they can get right.

Look, I’m the last person to undervalue educators and all they do. Educators take far too much crap all the time. It’s an actual expertise. I do think I got something out of my masters degree in education, after all. There is a lot of information out there about educational psychology, curriculum design, and educational philosophies, not to mention the nuts and bolts of how schools work on every level, all of which is specialized knowledge teachers have and much of which is useful in structuring a classroom program or working in education.

But none of it is as top secret or special as some educators would like people to believe. Nor is it necessarily complex. It’s especially not magic that only some people can practice. Teaching is more of a practiced art than anything else.

Don’t buy into the idea that education is somehow only possible when provided by the keepers of the school system. I think homeschoolers are often good at seeing through this rhetoric when it comes to socialization, but sometimes get caught when it’s about other topics, like early reading instruction or middle school essay writing or even preparing a high school transcript. I’ve seen people get intimidated by dense language in educational standards, where instead of saying straightforwardly that they want kindergartens to understand that there are four seasons, they weigh it down with verbiage about “use models to represent astronomical bodies” and “understand how natural systems and the designed world work together” and other things that make kindergarten information sound like rocket science.

Not only homeschoolers, but anyone can take charge of their own learning, in school, out of school, graduated or still young. Teaching others is a beautiful thing, but it’s not classified.

Eighth Grade

Box Day set up. We still like it to be exciting. Yes, I got letter cookies.

I updated the “Our Curriculum” post in the menu to include what we did for seventh grade. I can’t really do those these days until I’ve finished the year. Gone are the days when I ordered and planned for the whole year!

These days, I plan for a few months out. Still, I’ll put this post up on the menu as eighth grade, but until the end of the year, it’s a lie. Well, it’s a hope and a dream and a potential path. We’ll see where the wind carries us in the end.

Mushroom

Mushroom has been really good at finishing big projects and being self-directed about them. As such, I’ve kept things a bit open for him. He needs to work on reading, but we’re getting there.

Math:
Jacobs’s Elementary Algebra
We’ll see what extras we work in, like some more Mathematics: A Human Endeavor.

English and Language Arts:
Twisting Arms: Persuasive Writing (We’ve just started this virtually unknown program, but I love it!)
Daily Paragraph Editing
Some Brave Writer things like freewriting and poetry teas
Monthly short stories
Literature List:
Animal Farm by George Orwell
March by John Lewis
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanan
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

Projects and Studies

Astronomy
For this project, he’s reading Dava Sobel’s The Planets, as well as several shorter books and documentaries. We have Seeing the Sky for experiments as well as local astronomy clubs. We will also be using Crash Course: Astronomy.

Graphic Design
For this project, we’re using Picture This by Molly Bang and Creative Workshop by David Sherwin for hands on projects and thinking, and a number of more technical books for learning software skills. This will also incorporate some history and art history as well as research projects and a paper.

There will definitely be more… but I don’t know what yet!

BalletBoy

BalletBoy is an incredibly diligent worker, but I wanted to challenge him a little more. That’s been hard for me (it was my goal last year and I don’t feel I entirely met it!). To help us, I got more structured programs and plans for him this year to see if that does the job. I especially want him to focus on answering questions in his writing.

Math:
Algebra: Structure and Method by Dolciani, et al.

English and Language Arts:
Brave Writer elements like freewriting, poetry teas, and dictation
Daily Paragraph Editing (occasionally)
Monthly Short Stories
Literature List, with literature guides from a variety of sources, including the Glencoe Lit Library:
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Animal Farm by George Orwell
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
March by John Lewis

Spanish:
He’ll continue with Duolingo, but this isn’t totally settled yet. I’m trying to work out a tutor or an online option for him that will work and the pieces haven’t quite come together yet.

Projects and Studies:

The 50’s:
We’re using Prufrock Press’s Exploring America series for this. It’s incredibly rich in primary sources of all kinds.

Chemistry:
He’s using a huge number of resources for this topic, including TOPS Analysis, TOPS Solutions, Chemistry Experiments for Children, and some fun kits like a soap making kit and a cheese making kit. He’s reading The Disappearing Spoon, and using a simple chemistry coloring book as well.

Dance Anatomy:
This project will happen in the spring, so it’s not totally settled, but we’re going to use an anatomy coloring book, a couple of books about the human body, and the book Dance Anatomy by Jacqui Greene Haas, which came recommended and includes exercises and technical information together.

Paper

A few years ago, I started making a packet of paper for the kids that included things for the year. I bind them at Staples and have them ready to start the year on Box Day. They include things like a plan for what they’re studying, lists of required reading books, literature guides for novels, assignments I’ve created for projects, and a copy of each of the short stories that we’ll read. We read one per month and discuss it at a poetry tea. I put a pretty cover on them to make them personalized and exciting.

The eighth grade packets may have exploded slightly.

I put in more paper than ever. I’m hoping to have the kids do an “eighth grade internship” before the end of the year, so I made an assignment page for that. In fact, I made assignment sheets for more things than normal overall. The short stories seem to have been a bit longer, as were some of the lit guides I decided to use.

One child’s packet went a little crazy. It’s more than twice as long as the other’s. I think this may be a reflection of how much I’m trying to get him to do some polished work. If only I throw more paper at him, surely something will emerge from that? Right?

So while Mushroom’s packet has these general outlines of all the various subjects he wanted to tackle, with little notes that he should choose three projects or write a paper that we’d later agree upon, BalletBoy’s packet is filled with specific reading questions and long checklists. Mushroom is a finisher and he dreams big. He does a good job on anything he really sets out to do so giving him room to just do his thing makes sense. BalletBoy goes in fits and starts lately. He has lots of first drafts that never quite get finished or polished. He dashes off three word answers to what should be essay questions. He meanders through research on his own rabbit trails and never quite arrives at a finished product.

There are upsides and downsides to each of these approaches, of course. Mushroom can get anxious about his projects because he has a streak of perfectionism. BalletBoy can get lots of experience as he goes and he really appreciates the journey. I especially see this with ballet, where his studio focuses on technique above flashy end performance. Still, my goal for the year is to get him finishing more things and showing off more products worth showing off. Thus, the larger paper trail.

Here’s hoping that this isn’t a completely failing strategy.

In It for the Long Haul

We’re cleaning off the shelves as part of our break, filing work away and updating portfolios. I told Mushroom and BalletBoy that if they wanted to consider high school, that this was it; they needed to speak up now.

It’s never really been entirely up to them. I wouldn’t have allowed them to go to middle school barring a very good reason. And I’ve been pretty sure we were going to go all the way through for awhile. However, they’re about to be teenagers. I think they should have more of a say at this point.

It’s not that high school would be impossible down the road if our circumstances changed. I know that in some states, once you start down one path for high school, it’s almost impossible to switch, but in the District, there are flexible options for high school credits. However, once the deadlines for applications to charter and selective public school programs have passed in the winter, a lot of doors will close. If we were going to even consider that, I explained, I needed time to get things in order, let them tour schools and research options, and create applications. This is eighth grade, I said. Tell me now.

BalletBoy, no surprise, answered immediately. No way. He wants to homeschool. It’s an easy answer when you know it’s enabling your passion. His ballet moves to six classes this year. I can’t imagine managing that plus school, much less more classes and high school.

Mushroom dithered. Would missing out on high school close off any job options or college options down the line, he wanted to know. That’s my long term thinker. I reassured him. No, absolutely not. I couldn’t promise that he absolutely would never run into a hassle because he was homeschooled, but it is pretty unlikely overall.

The thing is, I am almost positive at this point that I can give them a better, richer experience for high school than school can. I used to teach high school and I’ve never found it as intimidating as some people seem to. I know many people get nervous about high school, but right now, I’m in the midst of planning our eighth grade year and looking ahead to future possibilities and I’m not nervous, I’m excited. Neither of my kids are ever going to be the sort of kids who pull in high test scores and piles of AP exams and honor roll awards. They would just be mediocre in school. Mediocre and worn out by the long days and heavy amount of busy work. But at home, we can do targeted work and make time for passion projects and intense extracurriculars where they really do get to show their best selves.

Mushroom has a real interest in design and I tried to explain how excited I am to push him to do certain programs and internships in high school, how he can really pick and choose the sort of university he wants to attend. How doing high school at home won’t hold him back from that. In fact, the opposite, it might enable it.

“I don’t really want to go to school,” he admitted. “Then don’t!” I said. So we’re decided for sure.

Whew. And with that off my plate, now to focus on being in the moment and getting the most out of the end of middle school. After vacation, that is.

It’s Okay to Be Out of Sync

Playing pool at the grandparents’ on the second day of school for kids here.

One of the things I have to remind myself of every single year is that it’s okay that we’re out of sync with everyone else.

You’d think that this would be obvious. When you homeschool, you step off the beaten path to make your own trail. We all know we’re not in sync with the goals, curriculum, or style of brick and mortar schools. And we’re often in while they’re having teacher workdays or other random days off, and out and about while they’re in class.

However, a lot of homeschoolers loosely follow the school calendar for a whole host of good reasons. That’s why, in the last week, my social media feeds and my friends have all been talking about starting back to school.

The thing is, we did school most of the summer and we’re taking our break now. It’ll be another month until we start properly. And it hits me on some level every year that we’re really far off from everyone else, including our fellow homeschoolers. There’s a sort of discomfort and defensiveness, which is silly, but it’s there.

So every year, I have to remind myself that it’s fine. And that we can do things our own way. If you’re also way off from everyone else’s school year, remind yourself that having your own schedule is one of the benefits of this homeschool gig. I don’t know about you, but I need to tell myself that I wasn’t a meanie for making the kids do math in July and that I’m not lazy for letting them relax through most of September. There’s nothing special about math that it needs to be done only from September through May and nothing special about vacations that says they need to happen in the summer months.