Raising Kids Who Will Do Better

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We live in a racist, sexist, classist, generally prejudiced world.

I grew up in that world, like we all do, in the south specifically. And while I was taught to value equality by my mother and by many teachers, I was also taught to see people of color as “other” or less in a million little ways and men as the ones in charge, by family members and by the culture around me. As I grew up, I tried to fight against those cultural lessons and for understanding racism, sexism, and intolerance. And I was lucky enough to have experiences attending diverse schools and traveling that helped me better understand other perspectives than my own. And as better language about privilege and implicit bias and consent has come into being, I’ve adopted it the best I can and tried to apply it to my little corner of the world.

But I’m not a native speaker of that language. And I never will be.

Here is a funny thing I’ve come to realize in the last year or so. My kids have internalized critiques of sexism and racism much more clearly than I can ever hope to. They are native speakers of the language that has evolved to talk about bias and oppression.

Let’s be clear. I have two privileged, middle class, white boys. And none of us are perfect by any stretch of the imagination. While I’m about to sing my kids’ praises here, I’ve also seen them slip up and say ignorant things about other people. All of us are works in progress. All of us are beneficiaries of a system that favors us. And while I would love it if our homeschooling circles were more diverse, they’re not, so that’s something we deal with.

But in the last few months, I’ve been seeing how Mushroom and BalletBoy call out incidents of sexism and racism and bias like it’s something they can’t not see. And they do it in a way that comes incredibly naturally to them. When we read aloud an older book where a boy plants an unwanted kiss on a girl’s cheek, BalletBoy stopped me practically mid-sentence and wanted to know, “Haven’t these people ever heard of consent?” When talking about “Sleeping Beauty” with the Husband, Mushroom observed, “The Prince basically assaults her in her sleep. Why is that supposed to be romantic?” When seeing a smiling slave in a picture book, Mushroom observed, “That’s not right. Would they really be smiling?” When told it would be okay if he was friends with someone who hated Muslims, BalletBoy fought back by being appalled at that notion. “No it wouldn’t! That person would be racist.”

When the boys were little, I really tried to take to heart the idea that the research says we have to be explicit with kids about race and that holding up colorblindness to kids as a value simply isn’t useful in combating racism. I’ve tried to keep the conversation about sexism in similarly clear terms, bringing up basic ideas about consent when they were very young with the idea that if it’s done naturally then that’s the best thing for raising kids.

And we’ve tried to read books and consume media that is diverse in many ways, with protagonists of different genders, races, and cultures. That has meant reading books like One Crazy Summer, that tackle racism head on in a very modern way (even if it’s a work of historical fiction) but also being willing to read quality older books and notice when race or gender isn’t dealt with well. One of the boys’ all time favorite series is The Great Brain, and it’s hardly a hateful series, but in books like that with older attitudes toward immigrants or First Nations peoples, we have tried to talk about how times have changed. And we’ve tried to read books and be willing to, in a kid appropriate way, study topics like the Civil Rights Movement or the Suffrage Movement or even tougher topics like the Holocaust or the legacy of Colonialism.

We haven’t had a unified curriculum or anything like that. And none of this has felt like a burden to me. Sometimes, I try to think, oh, have we been reading all male authors for awhile, maybe we should change things up, or vice versa, trying to loosely make sure we’re keeping a diversity of perspectives in our reading and media viewing. But mostly it’s been teachable moments, something that I think comes naturally to most homeschool families, and really to most thoughtful, engaged parents. However, part of doing this has meant being willing to have awkward conversations about race and gender even with young kids. The teachable moments are only obvious when you’re willing to have an uncomfortable conversation that acknowledges that things aren’t perfect or that racism isn’t over or that not everyone recognizes consent.

But the payoff is big. The payoff is kids who are native speakers of a new language. And for my kids, white males, it means they see privilege with acknowledgement and awareness but not resentment of the need to do that. They aren’t attached to some conception of masculinity that requires that they not express emotion. They don’t assume that a story about a Black girl or a Muslim boy or an Asian family isn’t for them so they’re open to listening.

Right now, my hope is that kids who were raised this way are our future.

 

Halfway There

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A sudden realization struck me not long ago. We are halfway there. The kids are firmly into seventh grade. We’ve passed the halfway mark on homeschool. Actually, if you include kindergarten, we passed it a ways back on the road, breezing past, minding our own business, not appreciating the scenery.

Will we do high school? It’s a question I get often lately and I admit that every time I see someone who is sticking with it so far, it’s first on my lips as well. It would have broken my heart to send the kids to elementary school, but I would have done it if it had been necessary. Middle school is not negotiable. No way can they go and now that we’re past sixth grade, if I were to die horribly tomorrow, I really hope the Husband would just keep them home and unschool them. Because I think it would be time better spent overall.

But high school? Right now, we’re in. BalletBoy is definitely in. Mushroom is maybe, probably in.

Everyone says that homeschooling is a marathon, not a sprint. I have given that advice myself many times. Don’t let yourself tire out, don’t overdo it, keep in mind that you’ve got time and it’s a long journey. All that good advice. I think we’ve mostly done it. There have been times I tried to sprint toward nothingness – toward reading too soon, toward better spelling, toward history books that were too hard. But mostly I think we’ve taken the right roads. We have just kept moving, kept doing something, not overthinking it too much.

And Mushroom and BalletBoy are mostly thriving. There are micro-things that I would love to change. When will BalletBoy remember to capitalize anything, even down to his own name? Will Mushroom ever be able to spell? Will BalletBoy forget how to do long division without be giving him the evil eye every single time he hasn’t practiced it for a week?

But the macro-things are mostly pretty good. BalletBoy writes lovely stories and is starting to write half decent essays. Mushroom dives into math with love and explains to me things in Mathematics: A Human Endeavor with a natural ease that is foreign to me as a math novice. Mushroom isn’t about to win any essay contests, but he’s getting more confident with writing. BalletBoy will be ready for Algebra I before the end of the year. BalletBoy has such a passion for dance. Mushroom is coaching a group of little kids for Destination Imagination. Mushroom likes to read now. Both of them are detail oriented and organized enough to carry out complex projects and make beautiful things. Both of them are kind and thoughtful and have interesting things to say. Sometimes they disagree with me.

It’s nice to take a moment to just say, hey, there’s still a long road ahead, but we’ve covered a lot of ground behind us. And we’ve done it mostly by being willing to just keep going and do something as we went.

What We’re Reading

Read Alouds
The Austin Family books by Madeleine L’Engle
Loyal blog readers may recall that last year I held down my children and forced them to read L’Engle’s most famous work, A Wrinkle in Time, and they really disliked it. It was the moment I had to really face that they simply wouldn’t love the books I had loved. But luckily, I tried again on the L’Engle front (I was a bit obsessed with her as a middle schooler and the heartbreak at their refusal to enjoy her work was intense) to much, much better results. L’Engle’s Austin series, about a contemporary family and their everyday struggles, has been a much bigger hit here. The books focus on one of the middle children, Vicky, and her struggles to grow up and find her place in the world. In Meet the Austins, the family temporarily welcomes an orphan, Maggy, who was raised very differently than them.  They struggle to adjust her to their small town, positive thinking lifestyle. In The Moon By Night, the family takes a cross-country trip to visit Maggy in her new California home, all while Vicky is trying to figure out her place in the world. Vicky is twelve in the first book, but nearly fifteen in the second. There’s a romance with a young man, Zachary Gray, who they meet camping and who follows the family from campsite to campsite, in part to romance Vicky. He’s much more grown up and pessimistic than Vicky or her family and it creates one of the primary tensions in the book. We’ve just started the final book in the original set (there are a few others with Vicky that L’Engle wrote at other times), A Ring of Endless Light, which deals with the approaching death of Vicky’s grandfather while she helps a young scientist study dolphins and deals with Zachary’s attentions again.

The books were contemporary to L’Engle’s time as she wrote them, but that was the early 1960’s and they now read like historical fiction in many ways. References to “phonographs” and other outdated technology litter the pages, as well as early 60’s fears about nuclear war and slang vocabulary like “slob” and “beatnik.” Overall, the kids have loved the books. They have sparked lots of discussions about the philosophy shared in the books, the quotes, and the attitudes of Vicky and her family. The family are religious and artistic and thoughtful so there is often a great deal of food for thought. The rich, meandering sentences have also been great for longer dictations. However, the time period is also occasionally a barrier. The kids were shocked by the idea that it might be seen as acceptable in any way for a seventeen year old to follow a younger teen around the country when her parents didn’t approve and she was ambivalent. “He’s a stalker!” they said, something I’m guessing previous generations of readers didn’t take from Zachary’s behavior. In general, the romantic element of the story has been a mixed element for my 12 year olds, but that’s more of a reflection of their age than anything else.

Mushroom’s Pleasure Reading
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall
Mushroom has really been tearing through books lately and he read this one with a great deal of focus and interest. It focuses on our very own fair city in the 1960’s and features a work of art we’re well familiar with, The Throne of the Third Heaven, which we’ve visited many times at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The book explores an imagined friendship between the main character, a young boy who has just lost his father, and the “junk man” who is working on his artistic masterpiece. This book, which had a touch of deep thinking and a lot of interesting issues, was right up Mushroom’s reading alley. He had read a review of this one and wanted to read it right away.

BalletBoy’s Pleasure Reading
Click Here to Start by Dennis Markell
I picked this new book up a couple of months ago in Portland (it’s not a trip to Portland unless you get to go look at books in Powell’s!). It’s about a boy who uncle leaves him a treasure in his will, but only if he can find it in the escape room style game that he turns his apartment into. I like that this genre of fun, light mystery books for kids has been growing lately. Books like this one, the Winston Breen books, and the Lemoncello’s Library books are perfect for a certain sort of reader. Click Here to Start has an added video game motif running throughout the story. A perfect light read for both Mushroom and BalletBoy.

Graphic Novel Reading
Red’s Planet by Eddie Pittman
Pittman is a former Phineas and Ferb writer and artist. The story here, about a girl from Earth who accidentally finds herself in space, dealing with a motley crew of characters, is reminiscent of Zita the Spacegirl. The full color art is lovely and imaginative. So… you’d think with a pedigree like that and an appealing story line that this would have been a huge hit here, right? Meh, the boys said. It was just okay. I also felt like there was some magic missing in this one, though I can’t say exactly what. Overall, though, I think it’s as much that Mushroom and BalletBoy are starting to outgrow this particular level and style of graphic novels (just as they have really hit boom status in the marketplace). So I’ll say highly recommended… for the 8-10 year old set.

BalletBoy’s School Reading
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
This was a challenge book for BalletBoy. One of his school topics this year, chosen by him, was time travel, so it seemed like the time was ripe to do a classic novel like this. He didn’t love it and there were a lot of moments that we had to pick through it and discuss what was really going on. I remember reading it when I was younger and the narrative is unsatisfying in places, especially the abrupt resolution. However, the issues it brings up are interesting, with the two strains of humanity developing into the Eloi and the Morlocks. And Wells does a good job with the reveal of the time traveler’s realization of who the Morlocks really are. Overall, I’m glad I assigned it.

Mushroom’s School Reading
The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane by Russell Freedman
This was a Newbery honor book from several years ago. It was a great length with the right level of text for Mushroom covering the lives of the Wright Brothers. It interweaves the Wright brothers’ quotes and photos into the text. I assigned it as part of Mushroom’s study of the history and science of aviation, one of his big topics for the year. He read it fairy quickly and retained the information well. However, if this review sounds lackluster, it’s because the book was really just okay all the way around. The old photographs throughout the text were nice, but the book design feels woefully old fashioned compared to the layout of newer nonfiction books at this level. And we agreed that the text just wasn’t that amazing. I would like to see more nonfiction books under consideration for the Newbery in general, but we’re a little unsure what made this one such a standout.

Farrar’s YA Reading
American Girls by Alison Umminger
This YA novel was an interesting tale. Fifteen year old Anna “borrows” her step-mother’s credit card to run away and stay with her sister in Los Angeles for the summer. Back at home, things are a mess with her parents, her school, and her best friend. In LA, her older sister, an actor, helps her stumble into making some money doing research for a director who is filming a movie inspired by the Manson girls. She alternates time doing her research and hanging out on the set of what is basically a Disney sitcom, flirting with one of the stars. To say that there’s a lot going on here is an understatement and by no means are the loose threads all tied up in the end. The setting is a bit wild, as are all the Hollywood characters and the background information Anna keeps reflecting on about the Manson murders. I can’t say I loved this book, but in the end, it was a compelling story. Anna was believable and I liked how she kept managing to do all the wrong things by accident and with good intentions. I think that’s pretty much what being a teenager is like much of the time. Definitely a teen read what with the references to abuse, drugs, and other vices, but Anna herself is pretty tame and there’s nothing graphic going on here.

September Vacations: The Best Homeschool Perk

Whoa! That's Chichen Itza! A great vacation this year.
Whoa! That’s Chichen Itza! A great vacation this year.

If you’re not taking your vacation in September, you’re missing out. I know not everyone can afford a vacation and that sometimes other commitments that have nothing to do with school can get in the way too, but if you can, I strongly suggest you take that vacation, whether near or far the week or even two weeks after Labor Day.

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We appreciate the raging waters near Niagara Falls two years ago. In September, of course.

I can promise you, less crowds, cheaper prices, and probably good weather. Yeah, I know, you start to risk Hurricane season in some quarters, but that’s what trip insurance is all about.

We haven’t had a huge vacation in a few years. Other than a drive to the in-laws and then on to scenic Niagara Falls, we haven’t managed to leave the country since our epic Africa vacation several years ago. But this September, we did the Yucatan. BalletBoy practiced his budding Spanish skills and we did a wonderful long unit ahead of time about Mayan history that made the boys sound so smart and informed while walking around the ancient ball courts and climbing the pyramids. Oh, and we chilled on the beach in Tulum a whole lot.

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Mushroom and BalletBoy do Epcot four years ago. In September, of course.

But if you’re not as adventurous, we got a great Great Wolf Lodge deal that week a couple of years ago. And our one grandparent fueled Disney trip was a second week of September affair and it was amazing. No lines, you guys. Well, almost no lines. Even if you’re just going to hit the local beach, the weather will probably still be great and the prices might be halved.

So next year, if you can, ditch the first week of soccer/dance/4-H/robotics club and head off for a few days to take your homeschool perk – travel without the masses.

I’m Glad We Stuck With Dictation

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We haven’t had many triumphant writing moments here lately. You know the sort of moments I’m talking about, where your kids write something so beautiful and lovely that your heart goes pitter patter. Sometimes it’s not even that well-written, it’s just that they wrote it, they wrote that poem, that paper, that one sentence, that letter to grandma, that thing you thought they couldn’t write.

Well, it’s all been a little perfunctory here lately with writing. The kids write. They don’t complain. BalletBoy is writing a fanfic mashup of Korra and Star Wars. Mushroom is working through Wordsmith because he needed to do some workbook based writing for a little while. They do an okay job of it, though sometimes I feel like we’re running in place. That’s okay.

However, I’ve been so appreciating lately that we stuck it out with dictation over the years. We’re in such a perfectly good place with dictation right now. I see how it has actually helped my kids get better at paying attention to mechanics. I see them getting faster and more fluent with getting the dictation down. I see them using dictation as a model. I feel like they’re learning from it.

I started out as a dictation non-believer. I wasn’t convinced that copywork and dictation would very good tools for teaching writing, but when nothing else was working, we started using them. Then I found Brave Writer and started to get convinced. There’s something beautiful about working on holding the passage in your head, about using good models of writing for learning, about streamlining together literature and writing by using dictation as a bridge, by taking the time to really focus on a shorter passage out of a book.

I choose our dictation passages and we do what’s sometimes called studied dictation. The kids read the passage ahead of time. I go over the vocabulary in the passage, the mechanics, the grammar. We talk about what’s going on in the passage as well as metaphors or other literary devices. Once the kids are done with the dictation, they now check their own work and make corrections, which is also a good exercise in editing. Finally, I check over it one final time. Sometimes we use a sentence or two as a model and the kids write their own sentences using the same structure. This is an exercise that is found in the Killgallon Sentence Composing series. It’s a useful one to be able to transfer to our dictation habits.

In the last year, we’ve moved to using Notability on the iPad for dictations. I record the dictation by reading it aloud. I put any questions or tricky words for spelling cues on the screen as well as any special mechanics reminders and whether or not they need to use it as a sentence model. I introduce the passage with them then let them use the recording and notes for actually doing the dictation when they’re ready. They can use headphones and put the recording on a slowed play or pause exactly when they’re ready. It has made it a lot easier for all of us. And while I like the idea of reading the passage in chunks only once, I have seen their memories improve more when they have control over the recording.

Like anything else, dictation probably isn’t perfect for all kids, but I’m glad I became a believer.

In Praise of BalletBoy

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I just want to sing BalletBoy’s praises for a little bit. A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how Mushroom’s anxiety is tricky for all of us. He’s smart and insightful and intellectually curious, but he gets in his own way so often that it’s hard to see the forest for the trees and there are things I wish I could have him really working on that he can’t and amazing projects he’d like to do that he stops himself from finishing because of his perfectionism.

On the other hand, BalletBoy has really been blooming academically and it’s really exciting to be on the cusp of seeing him head into seventh grade next year and knowing that I get to plan for this kid who is suddenly, miraculously ready for a challenge.

We’ve really taken a pretty relaxed path for BalletBoy’s schooling overall. He’s on grade level for math. We don’t have a long list of required books. He does just a few serious pieces of writing every school year.

However, in the last several months, I’ve been so impressed by how he can suddenly sit down and work independently on schoolwork happily and competently. He doesn’t need me sitting there at his side any more. His reading has taken off. A couple of years ago, I dismayed about getting both my boys to read higher level nonfiction, but we worked on it and last week, I was able to hand BalletBoy a copy of Collapse by Jared Diamond (of Guns, Germs, and Steel fame) and have him read a lengthy section on his own. He used sticky notes to write notes all over the margins that included good summary notes, insightful questions, and connections to other readings he had done on the topic. He will read nearly anything I put before him (if it’s for school – he’s a picky reader in his own time). When I give him an open-ended assignment, like to write about an historical character, he takes the initiative to do some research on his own then cheerfully writes something pretty decent, typed, of course. He has deep questions about philosophy and history and science.

When I taught middle school, there was often a miraculous jump that kids experienced from sixth to seventh grade. They left for the summer looking and acting like little kids and suddenly came back ready to be so grown-up and insightful. BalletBoy is still so little in so many ways. He and Mushroom and their friends still enjoy imaginary games and cartoons and middle grade novels instead of more grown up YA books. However, in other ways, I see that he has suddenly grown up a little academically and is ready for more.

Sometimes Mushroom sucks all the air out of the room, which means that, when given the same assignment, BalletBoy finishes it fast and reasonably well while Mushroom demands that he keep working until it’s downright amazing. I’m trying to start calling BalletBoy on his “good enough” work a little more and push him a little more, give him a little of the oxygen in the room, so to speak. We’re slowly dividing up everything the boys do so that within the next few months, they probably won’t be studying any of the same things with any of the same materials. I think it’s going to benefit BalletBoy greatly.

For one thing, I’m looking forward to really making him dive in with more reading, at a higher level. I’m looking forward to seeing him define his own path for study and seeing where it goes. I’m especially excited to have a student who’s just ready for more. He still can get frustrated or stuck or try to get away with doing only a little. However, he’s ready for more.

He’s also ready for more ballet. He moves to four days a week next year and will probably add an extra fifth class as well. BalletBoy’s determination and dedication, both to ballet and to other projects he starts up, take me by surprise routinely. He’ll find a contest he wants to enter and suddenly he’ll set aside any his free time and screens to work on it for days until he reaches some sense of satisfaction. Ballet is a project that never reaches completion. He’s honest with himself about his failings (he’d never say he was the best in his level) and his successes. While I don’t think of him as a serious kid, people at ballet often tell me they think of him as such a “serious young man” which is amusing but also, when I think about it, so true.

Basically, right now, it’s a delight to see BalletBoy growing up, turning into the person he’s going to be.

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.