All posts by farrarwilliams

Make It Middle School

I was doing some cleaning out of old files and found what I think were some of the first notes I made when I started writing my book about homeschooling middle school. I was writing a blog post about why it’s so critical to homeschool during the middle grades… and by the end of it, I was jotting down random questions. I think I gave up and moved to a new document where I started mapping a book instead.

I wrote…

If you homeschool one period of schooling, make it middle school. I’m saying this as a former middle school teacher. I really do believe that middle school can be so bad for kids that even if the relationships at home degrade pretty badly or if your child really wants to go to school, that it’s better to wait. I think even if you have to unschool middle school, kids will be in better shape overall.

While that’s obviously a pretty strong opinion, I thought I’d back it up by talking a little about statistics. Did you know that in several different studies where they looked at kids from the same populations who attended middle schools vs. K-8 elementary schools, that the kids who went to middle school had their test scores go down while the kids who went to K-8 schools had their scores rise? Middle school did that little for them.

Some other things worth noting. First, while homework may have some moderate benefits to grades and test scores in middle school, once you get over an hour per night, that benefit disappears, yet most estimates show that middle schoolers have more homework than that – sometimes a lot more, more like four hours worth. Also, we know that bullying is often its worst in middle school. And my number one complaint as a former teacher is that a lot of that work looks good on paper – it sounds cool to parents – but it’s a lot of effort for not a lot of learning. It’s basically false rigor.

Every time someone tells me they got something about of that book, I get a warm fuzzy feeling inside. But also, it makes me hope they’re able to give their child a good middle school experience away from the way that most American middle schools are run.

You can still find my book on Amazon. Tweens, Tough Times, and Triumphs is the title.

PS – Last call for my secret codes and puzzles class over at Simplify. This class is definitely a go and begins next week! I’d love to have your middle schooler!

Is It High School Worthy?

Look, you are in charge of your own homeschool. Your kids are your kids. You know them and what they’re capable of. Lots of people have special situations and the joy of homeschooling is that you can cater to what your kids need. It’s absolutely great that we can tailor a class around a student who needs remedial texts or extra supports.

However, if you’re writing a high school curriculum and including multiple books that the publisher recommends for grades 3-7 or grades 4 and up or ages 9-14… then maybe you need to rethink. And if you’re looking at high school programs that are based around multiple books that are geared toward upper elementary and middle school readers, I beg you to think long and hard about whether you’re doing your student a disservice. In the last couple of days, I looked at two different programs that did this that claimed to be high school level and I’ve seen others in the past. I worry that some homeschool parents aren’t choosing these for kids who specifically need lower level reading or an easy class, but because they simply don’t realize that this is not appropriate for most students.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes children’s books can help illuminate a subject in a new way. I used to read Yertle the Turtle to kick off a study of the French Revolution when I was teaching high school history in the classroom. I always recommend to students doing their own research that if a topic is truly brand new to them, to start with children’s reference books, which break information down in a way nearly anyone can approach. Heck, I do it for myself for topics I don’t know much about. Plus, some books are timeless. A student can listen to The Little Prince as a young child and get one meaning, then read it again as a young adult and find a new one. I just included the fable-like Haroun and the Sea of Stories in the high school program I’m writing. It doesn’t have one right age range or message.

However, it is our job as parents and teachers to push our kids to read beyond children’s books in our homeschools. That same high school program I’m writing also includes classic literature like Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. There’s no one canon students should read. However, I strongly believe high school students should be reading classic literature, both recent and ancient. Students should be engaged with difficult texts. They should be learning to engage with meaty books and primary source texts. When they read about history or science, it should be books written for older teens or adults.

We should not send kids to college who got credit for doing all their history reading for four years in graphic novel form or studied science with books intended for 7th graders. We should not send students to college who have only ever read young adult literature. I love YA books and they include many literary gems. Including a few YA books for required reading in high school is a great thing to do. However, it should not happen at the expense of reading more difficult books as well. Kids need to be challenged in their reading.

Not sure what high school students should be able to read? No matter how you feel about Common Core or actually using any of the ideas in your homeschool, the exemplars text list will give you a sense of what most American college track students are expected to read. The high school books include titles like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. As much as I enjoy quality YA and middle grades books, they will not prepare a student to suddenly be able to dive into texts with that level of complexity. I want my kids to be able to read books like that because they’re important, essential books.

Earlier this year, I ranted about how we protect our kids from difficult topics in history and culture too far into their education. High school students have to be confronted with the real history of slavery, the Holocaust, and other such difficult and controversial topics. However, I think we’re not doing it in a vacuum. A lot of families are giving their kids an exciting middle school level set of readings for high school. That’s in terms of both emotion and reading level. I’m really begging you. If you have a bright or average homeschooled teen, look at your reading lists and make sure you haven’t dumbed them down or bought into a program that dumbs down an appropriate education.

The Pop Culture Education

Are you watching “The Good Place” with your teens? Seriously, I want to take this show apart and assign a credit in philosophy for watching and discussing it.

But more on that in a minute.

Realistically, I preen a little when we go to a gallery and my kids can recognize an artist or when BalletBoy can name a ballet or Mushroom can cite a playwright. Highbrow culture is what we tend to value in education and I do think it’s important. I’m glad my kids know some Shakespeare and aren’t strangers to the symphony. I wrote a whole post about what great museum goers they are. Their favorite art museum is the Hirshhorn, which, hey, is not the favorite museum of someone who knows nothing about art.

But also, Mushroom stayed up late not long ago to watch the Video Game Awards on streaming and root for various titles, about which he had a multitude of opinions. BalletBoy made sure I saw the new Avengers trailer the minute it came out. Popular culture is alive and well in our house. And, honestly, gets more airtime than the other stuff, the stuff we’re supposed to value, at least if we want to be impressive academic superstars.

I can’t always seize on the things that the kids enjoy and turn them educational. Besides, sometimes it’s okay to just enjoy your junky television or movies. That said, when there’s a great discussion about morality, classical music, politics, history, or design arising from pop culture, then I’m on that.

Which brings me back to The Good Place. If you watch it, you already know, but ostensibly it’s a show about a group of people who die and go to… well, is it heaven, hell, or something else? However, underneath the over-the-top humor, it’s really a show about philosophy, making constant references to people like John Locke and Immanuel Kant. Don’t believe me? There are tons of articles exploring it – try this one, or this one, or this one.

Watching episodes like the one that explores the trolley problem or the most recent one that asks if it’s possible to even be a good person in a complex modern world with my teens is one of the highlights of my homeschool week. No credits being given as yet… I think I’d have to make a selection of readings and more in depth discussions to do that. But connecting with something that has the potential to be both fun and deep is one of the  best things about having teenagers.

Puzzles, Codes, and… online classes

At the moment, I’m up to my ears in secret codes, brain teasers, riddles, and logic puzzles. Seriously! I’m in the midst of planning one of the classes that we’re offering for middle schoolers over at Simplify Homeschool.

Part of me is nervous about all the balls we have up in the air right now. We’re still podcasting, still helping clients, and we have a high school humanities core that’s about three quarters finished and currently being beta tested by Mushroom and BalletBoy (I’ll post most about that soon, but BalletBoy gives it a thumbs up and Mushroom grumbles about it, though that can be said about his  reaction to nearly everything except attending theater performances these days). But now we’re also starting these online classes! It’s a big undertaking. Our class page just went live, so you can actually sign up now (or share, please share for us!). I think I’m actually most excited about keeping my feet a little bit in with the middle school world. Middle schoolers are the best people.

But more about those codes and puzzles!

The book I’m using for the class is a young reader’s edition of an adult book. I love young reader’s editions because they bring content that’s almost within young people’s reach to within their grasp. This one is The Code Book by Simon Singh. The one with the blue cover is the young reader’s edition. As I go, I have also had the Murderous Maths book Codes: How to Make Them and Break Them by Kjartan Poskitt sitting at the table with me as well as the Murderous Maths book that covers permutations and combinations, Do You Feel Lucky, also by Kjartan Poskitt. If you don’t know Murderous Maths, they’re so fun and whimsical. While they look like books for younger kids (and can be appreciated by them sometimes), the math is mostly at a middle school level. The other two books I’ve been looking at that are excellent are Top Secret by Paul Janeczko and a cheapie Dover book called Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing that’s by the esteemed Martin Gardiner.

The math of the codes is really fun. I feel like we don’t do enough math of counting and probability with students, and this is closely tied to that.

However, I have to admit that my real passion when it comes to puzzles is word puzzles, not math ones. I love a good crossword. I love puzzles like the trivia puzzles on the NPR show Ask Me Another even more. Or the sorts of mystery puzzles that are in Art Fraud Detective or The Great Art Scandal by Anna Nilsen. I thought about using those mystery books for the class, or the wonderful art mystery series for upper elementary and middle school that begins with Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett. But instead, I decided there’s really no other book series for puzzles than Eric Berlin’s Winston Breen mysteries. Each book is packed full of puzzles, most of them the sort of witty word puzzles with anagrams and so forth that I love. Eric Berlin also runs an amazing puzzle service that’s free called Puzzle Your Kids, that you should absolutely sign your kids up for if you have any interest.

This is all just to say… teaching is fun. Hopefully teaching online will be fun. And if nothing else, I got to dig through a lot of great resources, which is almost always my favorite thing to do.

The “Say Yes” Mentality

Years ago, when my boys were toddlers, I read an article where the mom resolved to try saying yes for one day to everything her very young child asked to do. There were limits, obviously. Kids need to be safe and it’s just not possible to get a pet unicorn (unfortunately!). But the idea was to say yes whenever possible to see how it felt.

That concept really stuck with me for a long time. We spend a lot of time telling young children “no.” I have definitely sat in the park and listened as a parent just said “no” to a 2 or 3 year-old over and over. “No, it’s not time for snack.” “No, not up on the big slide yet.” “No throwing.” “No, that’s not your ball.” “No, we can’t go over there now.” And so on, ad infinitem. Sometimes I see parents of young children telling their children “no” even as others say yes. I remember seeing a parent tell a child they couldn’t disturb a pile of mulch at a park once, only to have the landscaper turn and say, “It’s okay. I’m just going to spread it here in a few minutes.” The parent still led the frustrated child away.

The benefits of saying yes seem really obvious to me. Yes respects children as individuals, respects their wants and needs. Yes allows children to learn to self-regulate. Yes gives children the freedom to learn. Yes improves our relationship with our kids. It gives our no more weight because they recognize that it’s not empty and given in reflex. Sometimes you have to say no. But I like the impulse and stop and examine. Make yes the default.

As my kids have grown up, at some point, I thought, I have this “yes” thing totally down pat. Also, now that they’re teenagers, who cares? They know I respect them. They know I give them leeway. We’re all good.

Then, the other day, BalletBoy asked if we could start school a little late and play a board game.

I’m SO BUSY, I thought. I’m SO TIRED, I thought. Why THAT game, I thought. You have SO MUCH high school work, I thought.

And then I made myself say yes.

The yes mentality is something that I still have to relearn sometimes, I guess. But I needed the reminder that it’s still important.

It just changes. I don’t have to trail after my kids telling them no, no, no anymore lest they accidentally stumble into the mortal dangers of traffic or that mysterious thing on the ground that somehow looks appealing to stick in their mouths. Now that they’re teens, the dangers are so much more complex and so much more long term. You can’t just pull them back from the road like toddlers and know that they’re fine. They have to figure out how to approach first loves and complex friendships. They have to come to their own understandings of why they need to work hard or engage or have goals. And there’s not one moment when it will go right or wrong.

It’s as key as ever that I say yes so they can figure out their own boundaries and trust that when I say no, the no has weight. Just like when they were little, I still have to say no sometimes.

But the moments when they want my attention, advice, or my ears are also more precious and fleeting than ever. Yes, you can tell me about that video game strategy. Yes, you can play that song in the car. Yes, we can go for a hike instead of finishing up math.

So this is a reminder to myself. Say yes.

 

 

 

Let Them Read It

I’ve recently been in several discussions about books for middle and high schoolers where people have shied away from reading about “difficult” topics. No violence, no romance, no abusive characters, no murders, no controversy.

Sometimes the kids in question are apparently sensitive. Other times, covering difficult topics is against the family philosophy, at least until the kids are ready for it.

The problem is, by the time they get to high school, they need to be ready for it.

Kids in high school should be headed toward joining that “great conversation” about the world’s great works of literature. Or, at the very least, toward understanding the world around them, including its history, and being able to grapple with questions about the darker side of human nature. How are they supposed to do that if you don’t ever read about love or hatred? How are they supposed to understand history if they can’t read about the Holocaust or the Cultural Revolution or the Civil War?

Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it isn’t just a nice saying. It’s actually true that if we don’t understand these things at all, we are likely to repeat their mistakes. High school is the last bit of compulsory schooling before kids head off into the world. Hopefully they pursue higher education, but then high school has to prepare them for that.

A college professor told me recently about students she had in class who had never heard of Jim Crow laws. Because they were relevant to the topics they were doing, she provided them with some background readings when she realized this gap in their education. Several students accused her of making it up.

If students are taught a sanitized version of history all through their formative years, they’re going to struggle to understand the complexities of the world later on. It’s that simple. Your high schoolers are nearly adults. It doesn’t mean you should constantly push the worst horrors of history on them, but it does mean that they need to be ready to deal with some of them. Don’t assume they can’t handle a gentler dose in middle school either. There are amazing middle grades novels about difficult periods of history. These are books that are written for ten, eleven, and twelve year-olds specifically about difficult topics.

I plead with you as parents. Teach the Holocaust. Teach the Rape of Nanjing. Teach the horrors of trench warfare. Teach the realities of slavery. Teach the legacy of racism and colonialism. Teach the realities of abuse and oppression through stories of people who deal with it and persevere or overcome. Your teens deserve to know this stuff so they can be good global citizens. Let them grow up and understand the world in a deeper way.

Math With No Numbers

Can you do math without numbers? The answer is obviously yes.

Several years ago, I read about someone asking for more math problems without numbers and thought to myself, huh? What’s that even mean? What would it look like? From there, I discovered the vintage book Problems Without Figures by S.Y. Gillian.

Reading on, I discovered exactly what a math problem with no numbers looked like.

If you know the width of one stripe on a United States flag, how can you find the total width of the red stripes?

See what I mean? In order to answer the question, students need to know how many stripes are on the flag and how many are red. They need to understand that to find the total width, they’ll need to choose an operation. In this case, they need multiplication. And in order to answer the question, they’ll have to explain it, because the problem doesn’t tell you the width. The only way to answer is by explaining your process.

See how sneaky a numberless problem is? Sometimes numbers worm their way in there, and several of the problems in the original book did include a number or two. However, most of them were like the problem above. They made students really think about the process of solving the problem.

When students face a word problem, they often revert to pulling all the numbers out and “doing something” to them. They want to add, subtract, multiply, or divide them, sometimes without really considering which operation is the right one to perform or why. When you don’t have numbers, it sidesteps that problem. For students who freeze up when they see the numbers, this can be a really good way to get them to think about their process with math.

That’s been an increasing focus in the wake of Common Core to get kids to be able to show that they understand the math they do. This is a very old fashioned approach that does exactly that.

However, when I first read Problems Without Figures, I saw that Denise Gaskins, the author of the excellent Let’s Play Math, pointed out that it could really use a rewrite. Excited to give it a try before using it with my own kids, I did just that for the first few dozen problems and went on to use them off and on with my kids over the last few years.

Recently, I pulled out the book again and decided to give it a full facelift and publish it. Some of the problems just have updated language. However, for many others, updating didn’t seem to make a ton of sense. Take this gem:

I know the length of a field in rods and the width in feet, how can I find how many acres it contains?

Kids are barely familiar with acres today and rods are entirely bygone as a system of measurement. Some problems like this got rewritten. I added problems with meters, for example. However, some of the problems just needed a totally new take. I tried to add a lot more problems about figuring out how to navigate all the choices we have nowadays.

If you plan to leave approximately a 20% tip on your restaurant bill, what’s a quick way to calculate that amount?

Overall, this was a really fun project. I hope other people find it useful! You can find it on Amazon.