Category Archives: Homeschooling

A Follow Up on Acellus

My post about Acellus continues to get the most hits on this blog consistently. I want to say a few things about it.

This is an extraordinary time that may call for unusual solutions.

First, I wrote that post as I was frustrated with trends in homeschooling way back at the start of the year. Little did I know that the homeschool landscape was about to radically change. There are now a LOT more people engaged in home learning. There are a lot more families doing this who simply did not want to be. One of my premises in that post was that unless your child was in an unsafe situation at school or had another unusual circumstance, you’d be better off leaving them in school than using these inexpensive online programs. Well, surprise! In person school is now an unsafe situation for nearly everyone in the United States, at least for now.

With that in mind, I want to emphasize that for anyone who is stuck doing this, no choice about curriculum that you make is going to “ruin” your kid or your kid’s education. And especially, I want to emphasize that if you need to use a basic computer learning system to get through a single year, then please do it. In my original post, I talked about circumstances where it made sense to use these sorts of programs in the short term, such as a mental health crisis or a student with an outside job. Well, add the pandemic to that list.

Acellus is still the worst of the bunch.

However, if I was going to pick an online program for you, I would still strongly recommend against Acellus specifically.

They aren’t the only bad player out there. In fact, several of the Christian specific programs are just as bad if not worse. However, since that’s where my hate mail seems to come from and since that’s what’s churning up dislike of me, I’ll just keep singling them out.

A lot of US school districts chose Acellus as their virtual platform to use during the pandemic for the 20-21 school year. And very quickly, one state dumped it.

You can read the summary of what happened in Hawaiian schools here or here. The tl;dr is that parents quickly took screenshots of eye raising content they witnessed in Acellus. That included racist content, sexual innuendo in an early elementary video, and a teacher showing off a gun to a class.

They also started looking much more closely at the founder of Acellus. According to the articles I linked above, Roger Billings “doctorate” was awarded by an institution he founded and there have been allegations for years that he leads a cult. He also has tweeted some disturbing things, such as that everyone who has died of Covid “would have died anyway.” The articles linked above also link to more sources, including Twitter screenshots of some of his acolytes and more of his now removed Tweets, all of which have a very strong political bent that goes outside the mainstream. This is not a man qualified to create curriculum for children.

Several districts in Hawaii have already dumped the program, less than a month into the school year.

As I wrote in my last post, I’m very concerned about corporate influence in education right now. It’s across the board, in homeschool and public school arenas. Acellus is one really blatantly bad example. But I’m also unimpressed by everything I’ve seen from companies like Edmentum and Pearson. None of these are great systems for kids to truly learn. I’ll say it again. Education is slow and labor intensive and requires a human connection.

Some people complained I didn’t give advice.

Look, I can’t tell you what the right solution is for you if you need to homeschool suddenly. I strongly believe in personalized solutions in homeschooling. One size does not fit all in education at any level. I have literally built a business founded on that idea. There are programs that I might offhandedly call “meh, light” or “way too overplanned” or “weird book choices” that, when I meet the right person I have to say “perfect fit for your student struggling with that subject” or “this will lay it out for you step by step like you like” or “oh, I’ve got the perfect book based program for a kid with those unusual interests!”

If you want to know what I used, it is literally all over this blog. The “Our Curriculum” tab on the blog links to posts that tell you what I used with my own kids from K-7th grade. Those won’t necessarily be right for you or your kids either! But they were things we mostly liked. And there are lots of new programs available now. When we started out, Acellus didn’t even really exist as an option, but neither did rich book based secular programs like Build Your Library or Blossom and Root. The whole marketplace is different now.

If you have a K-2nd or 3rd grader, I beg you to try and keep them off the computer for at least a chunk of their learning day. Little hands need small motor practice that they won’t get there. Little brains need less screen time. If you have a kid who is older, I would also say that there are lots of options for paper based curricula that you can use. Online is not the only solution. Try to accomplish math, reading, and writing. Everything else is icing on the cake.

However, if I had to hold my nose and recommend an all-in-one inexpensive online program for you… I’ll suggest Time 4 Learning. I named them in my original post and I’ll stand by the idea that I don’t think any all computer based program can really be the best choice in normal times. But I’ve known a lot of people who have used Time 4 Learning to start out, to tide over, or to get through something. Most people I’ve known move on from it after a year or so, but some stay with it and supplement and enrich, making it just one component, which would be the ideal way to use any online learning system. They have extra modules for English that include reading actual books. I’ve never heard anything really negative about the content in the vein of the examples of racism and downright cringeworthy questions that I posted above about Acellus.

I’ll also recommend seeking out individual teacher-led classes online, especially for older students. If you’d like to just try this method of learning out, there are inexpensive options on Outschool. However, there are much more complete, challenging courses out there as well.

My last word about this is that I one of the best books I’ve read exploring the ideas involved in online education is Sal Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse. If you are going to stick with online based learning, it’s definitely worth a look. Sal Khan founded Khan Academy. He writes a lot about mastery based education and how online, computer based education can support that. The book is more exploratory when he talks about what to couple with the sort of work a student can do on Khan. But he recognizes the need for interaction, innovation, and hands on exploration for students.

I’m worried about corporate influence in education. You should be too.

I’ve continued to get a few serious hate messages (none posted) from my post about Acellus and other low end homeschool online programs. Once you’ve decided to use the b-word in calling names, you’ve definitely undermined your whole position (and shout out to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s brilliant speech about exactly what’s not okay about that). But let’s put that aside for a moment.

Several people have said to me that this pandemic must be great for my business. I’m an independent educational consultant now. I work with homeschoolers – particular middle and high school parents – on how to homeschool and with students and families trying to get their homeschooled students into college. It’s true that we have had a bump in business. However, what we offer isn’t easy solutions. Our intention was never to work with parents who didn’t want to home educate. I absolutely believe there are lots of ways that home education can work, which is why my business doesn’t have some single system we’re selling. We get to know each client personally then try to tailor our suggestions to their needs. Even if business were booming beyond belief, we help people on an individual level. We have a pretty small limit on the number of clients we can take.

The people who are making huge sums on this are large educational corporations. Those include Edmentum, the company behind Monarch and the new Calvert; Pearson, the company you probably know as an educational textbook publisher; K-12, the company that runs online charter schools in most states; and Acellus, the company behind Power Homeschool, which I singled out previously because of its growing popularity and because they have had some very dirty marketing tactics in the past, including posing as homeschoolers with fake accounts on forums.

These large businesses are getting a larger share of the educational pie than ever this year. I’m concerned by that. I think you should be too.

I’m not saying that some of these companies don’t provide useful products. However, in the end, education is slow and personal. It cannot be downloaded into your child’s brain via computer. It’s also not a product. Education is a process. These corporations treat education as a product. They treat your children as products. In fact, they see your children as money to be made.

When you educate your child at home, you have their best interests at heart as a growing person in need of education. When you send your child to a small, nonprofit, private school, they have a mission statement that guides how they educate your child. They have teachers who are there to care about your child. When you send your child to a public school, you’re sending your child to an institution filled with people who are driven to care for you child’s education, overseen ultimately by the public and your votes. I’ve been involved in all of these at various times. They can all be good models of educating children.

When a corporation educates your child, they care about the money that your child represents. They cut corners whenever they can. Corporations do not have your child’s best interests at heart. Their core mission is always to make money on a large scale.

There will always be people writing books, creating educational software, teaching kids, making enrichment camps, tutoring, and making money in education in various ways. I do that too. But there is a difference between being paid for your teaching, your creative work, or your labor and paying into the profits of a large scale company that does not pay teachers very well. Everyone should be paid for their expertise and labor. But that’s not the same as amassing a fortune and making decisions that are about selling and marketing over quality. That is what Edmentum, Pearson, Acellus, K12, and so forth do.

If you’re in the pandemic, home educating unexpectedly, then you should do whatever you need to do to get through this. If you have a high school student and your easiest path to getting credits is one of these corporate options, they’re cheap and you should do what you need to do. I understand why people feel pressed to look at these options more than ever. These are big questions and forces, bigger than any one person’s individual decisions about their family’s needs. But that doesn’t mean I’m not concerned.

With so many families taking students out of the public system because of the pandemic, I’m very worried about access to schooling that is above and beyond this cheap online model. Both new homeschoolers and school districts are turning to corporations to solve their education problems during the pandemic. Maybe that’s a good stopgap? But what happens if we move so far away from the human-centered, human-delivered, mission-driven model of education and toward a model where money is key? It will exacerbate big gaps in access to quality education between rich and poor, and often along racial lines. Some states are even planning to use pandemic emergency funds to encourage parents to abandon public schools. Many of them are using funds to expand the corporate role in your child’s education.

There are no easy answers for education during a pandemic. However, I don’t think parking American kids in front of low end learning software long term is going to be a good outcome. Maybe it’s better than the alternatives for now. But then what?

Homeschool Pods

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Our crew, back in the day. I think we were studying American history, because this is Mount Vernon. They’re probably not supposed to jump off that little wall.

Okay, since I popped back in here after a slew of angry spam, I realized I have another thing to say about schooling options right now for struggling families.

Now there are all these models floating around for support structures for homeschoolers. There are class centers where students sign up for individual classes, “microschools” where a group of parents hires a teacher for a small group of kids, online schools that offer just a few classes or do it all for you… I like a lot of these models and we’ve even used several of them. Especially as my kids have gotten older, it’s nice to have the option of sending them to a quality teacher at a center or enrolling them in an online class for a subject I can’t teach. And if other structures help families feel more secure or work better, especially for working parents, then I’m all for them. Education can be done so many ways.

But it has occured to me several times that the way we did it back in the day when Mushroom and BalletBoy were small, could be perfect for the pandemic times, assuming you can get a group you trust and want to “pod” with. I assume you’ve all heard about the pod concept where you stop distancing with a couple of families and share resources in various ways, as well as try to keep each other a bit saner. Everyone has to agree to limit their contacts beyond that group, but within that structure, it seems like it’s worth the risk for many people. Everyone has to follow the law and decide what risks you’re comfortable with, obviously. But since a lot of families are considering this sort of approach anyway, it’s out there.

When my kids were little, we did have a co-op, but we didn’t hire a teacher, rent a building, or charge any fees. We didn’t develop or choose a curriculum or try to figure out how to cover reading, writing, and arithmetic together. We were just about four families (though we were sometimes three or five) and met just once a week, though more often could have been fine, especially in this environment where you don’t have other activities taking up your time. We changed it at various points, but the gist was just that we rotated parents as teachers. The kids picked a topic to study. Dinosaurs, American history, secret codes, poetry, money, the human body, robots and inventions, and so on and so forth. Then each parent would teach something for a day. The kids would come over, do a bunch of activities, then spend the rest of the day playing hard and running around until someone decided we had to beat the traffic and stop.

Later on, we changed up our model so that one parent oversaw a whole unit with lots of meetings about a topic the kids were learning about. Then we rotated for the next unit. We were part of another co-op where the parents picked the topics and we picked big themes for the kids as well.

Math, reading, and writing? Those were for the parents to be in charge of because not every kid is ready to do the same thing at the  same time. Not every program works for every kid. Plus, you should do those for a few minutes with younger kids every day.

I have the most idyllic memories of those co-op days. We were together for many years. The kids once learned about poetry and went to the aquatic gardens to write poems about lotuses and tiny wildlife in the pools. They once learned about the Gold Rush and spent several hours, in the rain, “mining” for gold. They once learned about crystals and grew colorful ones stretching down from strings into jars. They planned camping trips together. They cooked food together. They invented board games and put on shows.

All these other models could be right for these new families in this hard time. But also, you don’t have to have a school or a microschool or an outside teacher. You definitely don’t need an online based option or a curriculum in a box. Keep up your kids basic math, reading, and writing just a little bit. Get a math program, make sure they’re reading some books or teach them phonics if they’re still learning, and make sure they put pencil to paper sometimes. And then for everything else, it’s okay to think way outside the box. It’s okay if it’s loose and fun and wild. Whether you’re alone or with others, if you have elementary schoolers, whatever works is whatever works. But if you are with others, think about keeping it open ended and child led. You really can’t go wrong if you’re just trying something, letting them ask questions, letting them play.

Y’all, I meant it. Cheap online learning is crap.

See my previous post. No one is going to sway me by telling me that my children are going to be failures. Can my eyes roll back in my head any farther?

Cheap online programs are not good for your kids, not used alone without other enrichments. And knowing Acellus’s business tactics, I wouldn’t put it past them to be spamming me with their own fake accounts at this point.

Inexpensive online learning used in a vacuum long term does not have positive learning outcomes. Your kids are not learning to be tech geniuses by using any old online program. Graduating early is not a sign of a better education, just a rushed one. Multiple choice education is not any more effective or deep than multiple choice tests. Real education is slow and expensive. And that’s why schools are expensive and good teachers don’t come cheap.

I love that there are more options in home education now. It’s especially key right now with everyone stuck at home. But my greatest fear in this pandemic is that we are robbing our children of quality learning by turning to corporate solutions instead of real ones.

If anyone is genuinely interested in the ways that online learning can be used for mastery and combined with creative, innovative thinking, then I recommend The One World Schoolhouse by Sal Khan, of Khan Academy fame. The ways he envisions using programs like Khan Academy – which, by the way, is free and better quality in many cases than some of these cheap online options you’re paying for – and coupling them with actual applications and deeper thinking tasks and open ended learning – are interesting and hopeful.

Meanwhile, screw you, corporate profiteers trying to take over home education.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Acellus (among others)

Because this post continues to receive a ton of attention, I have written an addendum to it. It’s available here. And if you really want to see the “research” maybe go read the excellently thorough investigative piece at OneZero, the journalist arm of Medium. Below is the original post, unaltered.

Psst… I know I’m not around here very often. Mushroom and BalletBoy are working their way through homeschooling high school with some live online courses, some dual enrollment at a local community college, and some courses at home. I’m busy running things over at Simplify Homeschool. If you need help with homeschooling, especially with planning high school with college acceptance in mind, you can find me there.

My social media and search feeds are bombarded with ads for really bad homeschooling programs and well-meaning homeschoolers recommending those programs. If you’re new to homeschooling, there’s a good chance you’re being bombarded with them too.

Time4Learning, Acellus/Power Homeschool, Mia Academy, Calvert Homeschool, Monarch… and the list goes on. You probably also see ads for K-12, Connections, and other programs typically provided as part of online charter schools. Plus you likely see ads for math and individual learning programs such as Adventure Academy, Elephant Learning, IXL, ABC Mouse, and others.

In the last several years, these programs have come to dominate the homeschool conversation and scene. They promise that for a low monthly fee, you can have everything you need to homeschool or that for a monthly fee they can enrich your homeschool through digital learning.

Let’s look at one of the most popular options, Acellus, which is sold mostly through Power Homeschool. I’ve been around long enough to remember when Acellus was an upstart provider getting banned from multiple homeschool groups for running sock puppet accounts to post fake testimonials about their product. From that beginning, and a lot of money spent on advertising, they have grown to become a huge company, providing credit recovery classes, homeschool “courses,” and other software based education services. They’re a private company, so I can’t say how much they make, but suffice it to say that it’s a great deal.

On the Power Homeschool site, they use the word “complete” to refer to their product in several places. They offer various “reports” such as attendance and progress reports, just like a school would. Under the section on parent responsibilities, it only lists that parents must follow state laws and “supervise” their students. It makes no mention of doing any outside teaching, enriching, or even homework support. Sounds like a complete program, right?

Nope.

In actuality, Acellus quietly places a disclaimer that it’s meant to be “part” of a program. What’s the rest of the program? There’s no way to tell from their website materials. It’s really up to the parents. However, parents choosing Acellus are typically thinking of it as everything they’re doing for school. Because they aren’t immersed in a homeschool community where parents talk about enriching ways to approach education, they come to think that choosing this self-paced, video-based, multiple choice program, they’ve done their duty.

Most families turning to software based solutions for homeschooling as their primary teaching method would be better off leaving their kids in school.

I do think these online, software-based programs can have uses. Sometimes, you just need to check the box for a subject, especially for a student in high school who is busy with another subject or even a non-academic pursuit. Other times, parents use programs like these to fill in the gaps when someone in the family, either the student or parent suffers from a chronic illness or is going through a rough year, perhaps with a major life change. There are worse ways to deal with that than relegating a year of learning to a computer program. A few families do enrich these programs, though in my experience, they tend to use them briefly then move on in dissatisfaction because they realize how bare bones and boring the programs are.

What is the purpose of homeschooling? Sure, some people turn to it out of a specific need — a child’s physical or mental health issues, a child’s career such as in acting or the arts, a situation with severe bullying. However, typically, it’s to provide a superior education to our kids. The core of these programs is videos plus multiple choice and other very basic questions. That’s it.

Learning happens through interaction. It happens through experience. It happens by testing and trying things out. The idea that a student can learn how to write by choosing the best option for a sentence on a multiple choice quiz is preposterous to me. Many of these programs do offer ways for students to write paragraphs or essays. However, they don’t provide much, if any, feedback. What use is that? Sometimes they do ask students to read books for literature, but there are no opportunities to discuss. The overall emphasis isn’t on reading at all, but on information given in little video chunks. Even for a subject like math, where there usually is a single correct answer, the process of understanding how to get that answer is often too complex to be learned solely through multiple choice questions.

I’m hardly a Luddite and I’m a huge advocate for using screens creatively as well as using live or asynchronous classes with a teacher as part of your homeschool. However, parking a kid in front of a screen without even a human to talk to on the other end for their entire education is soulless, empty, and bereft of meaning. Education is more than a few facts. It’s a process that should be at the heart of a child’s life. Homeschoolers used to talk about raising lifelong learners. These computer programs don’t care about anything other than checking off a box.

They also take away the beautiful flexibility of homeschooling. Why should a kid have to learn American history one year if they’re obsessed with medieval knights? Why should a high school homeschooler emerge with a transcript that looks just like a public school student? Shouldn’t they aim for more individualized work? Of course there are “elective” options on these sites, but they’re often relatively limited. The array of electives on Power Homeschool is fewer than what the large public schools offer here.

I sympathize with parents who are pressed for time and money but want to homeschool. I would ask them, if the education your child will receive through a computer is inferior to the one they’ll receive at school, then is it worth it? Homeschooling takes work. It takes your time and effort. If you don’t have that time or energy, that’s okay! It doesn’t make you a bad parent. If your child really needs out of a bad school situation, then maybe it’s a temporary solution until you find a better one. Maybe that’s another brick and mortar school. Or maybe you seek within yourself and your community and find those reserves to be able to help your student at home with interaction and work that does go above and beyond what these programs offer.

There are some amazing teachers out there teaching online and some great little curricula written by homeschoolers and teachers. Everyone deserves to get paid for their labor. However, the found of Acellus or Time4Learning do not care about your student’s education. They are looking to make a dollar. They have no philosophy beyond simply sales. Money and corporations have become the biggest force in education these days. I see it and weep because it is not helping homeschooled kids receive a better education any more than it helps kids in traditional schools.

In the end, I know these companies are going to continue to prey on homeschoolers. They’re going to continue to make it sound like it takes no effort to homeschool. They’re going to continue selling you snake oil.

I’m going to continue to rage about them, because I hate what they’re doing to a group of people who used to really care about the best way to teach our kids.

Six Middle School History Years Planned

I began my career in education as a history teacher and I feel like it’s the subject that I see people overthinking the most in the homeschool world. As great as I think history is and can be as a subject, I also think the most important thing is to just do something. Yet I’ve seen people debate minutiae of historical interpretation, refuse to use a text because of one or two minor errors, and wring their hands over whether or not it’s okay to read historical fiction instead of primary sources for first grade.

Kids have a leg up when they know history. It builds on itself. When they sit down to read a difficult book about history, recognizing names, places, and events definitely makes it easier. However, going through everything with a fine tooth comb isn’t going to draw in most kids. High school history surveys don’t assume specific prior knowledge either, so it’s alright if there are gaps.

One of the things I talk about in my book about middle school is how it’s important to be engaged and doing, but that you don’t need to make it complex. Reading and discussing keeps it simple but substantial. That’s really what you want.

Most of the history programs I’ve seen for middle school are sorely lacking. That’s why the pile of books and a little discussion is the best you can do a lot of the time. Look at some maps. Find some supporting videos. Take some field trips if they’re available. It’s really that easy. You don’t need tests, worksheets, fill in the blank maps, and document based questions. You don’t need primary sources. It’s all right if all you do is read a good pile of books. Kids also don’t have to read that much themselves. When my boys were in middle school, we still read aloud the vast majority of our required books. Other families like audiobooks. Other kids tear through any book you put in front of them. But it’s not a dictate to force your kids to read. You can still read aloud.

With that in mind, here are six history plans for middle school. Just add conversations and whatever videos and research you happen to do along the way.

The World Wars Year

War Horse by Michael Murpurgo
Angel on the Square by Gloria Whelan
The War to End All Wars: World War I by Russell Freedman
War Game by Michael Foreman
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Code Talker by Joseph Bruhac
The Winged Watchman by Hilda Von Stockum
When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
We Are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust by Jacob Boas
Bomb: The Race to Build and Steal the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
Hands On Bonus for Project Fans: World War II for Kids: A History with 21 Activities by Richard Panchyk

The Global Stories Year

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
The Red Pencil by Andrea Pinkney Davis
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang
Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye
A Girl Called Disaster by Nancy Farmer
The Boy Who Harnessed the WindYoung Reader’s Edition by William Kamkwamba
I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World by Malala Yousafsai
Baseball and Other Stories by Gary Soto
Homeless Bird by Gloria  Whelan

The Birth of the United States Year

Children of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruhac
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson
Ashes by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin
Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Salt by Helen Frost
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper
Bull Run by Paul Fleischman
The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Roderick Philbrick
Hands on Bonus for Project Fans: Great Colonial America Projects You Can Build Yourself by Kris Bordessa

The Post-WWII America Year

Hidden Figures: Young Readers Edition by Margot Lee Shetterly
Most Dangerous by Steve Sheinkin
The President Has Been Shot by James L. Swanson
Countdown by Deborah Wiles
Revolution by Deborah Wiles
Penny from Heaven by Jennifer Holm
The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
March Trilogy by John Lewis
T-Minus: The Race to the Moon by Jim Ottaviani

Immigration Stories Year

Esperanza Rising by Pam Nunoz Ryan
Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer Holm
Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse
Sylvia and Aki by Winifred Conkling
Return to Sender by Julia Alverez
Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai
The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
A Different Mirror for Young People by Ronald Takaki and Rebecca Stehoff

The Middle Ages Around the World Year

The Well of Sacrifice by Chris Eboch
The Ugly One by Leanne Statland Ellis
The Inquisitor’s Tale
 by Adam Gidwitz
Castle by David Macaulay
Good Masters, Sweet Ladies by Laura Amy Schlitz
Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
The Road to Damietta by Scott O’Dell
Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher
I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Lee Wilson
The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa by Patricia McKissick

Grown Up Science Books for Middle Schoolers

One of the things I wanted to emphasize in my book about homeschooling middle school (which you can still buy!) is how your middle schoolers reaching this new age makes them more fun to teach. You get to learn alongside them more. They have the ability to learn more complex information and discuss it in new ways, with new depth.

For science, that includes reading adult level nonfiction for many middle schoolers. It’s good to start slow with this sort of nonfiction. Read it aloud. Ask students to read articles. Magazines like National Geographic are a good place to start. But once they can do it, it opens up such a huge world of nonfiction reading, especially in the realm of science. Americans struggle with science textbooks and we all know that the science program options are limited for homeschool students. However, the amount of great science nonfiction for adults is terrific.

“Just read,” is also good advice for some kids for science and history in the middle grades. It’s great when you can do more and get hands on, but it’s also okay if you don’t have a formal curriculum and focus instead on engaging with good books and films. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are a few ideas to get you and your middle schooler started on reading popular adult nonfiction.

Image result for the planets dava sobelThe Planets by Dava Sobel
The Science: Astronomy, specifically covering the planets.
Difficulty: It’s a very short book, which makes it useful for kids without much reading stamina. The text is very poetic, which can be a barrier for some readers.
Why Read It: Sobel is a great writer and this little volume is just beautiful. It combines the history, the science, and the poetry and art about each planet in our solar system (and includes Pluto, since it’s a little older). This is a great read for a middle school astronomy study.

Image result for longitude dava sobelLongitude by Dava Sobel
The Science: History of science, geography and engineering, specifically the engineering of clocks
Difficulty: It’s very short, which makes it within reach for many younger readers.
Why Read It: Who says history of science can’t be fun? This book was so compelling that it was even made into a mini-series. This would be a great addition to early modern history for a science lover.

Image result for in the shadow of manIn the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall
The Science: Zoology, specifically the study of chimpanzees and a little about other primates.
Difficulty: This book is a very easy read overall. Goodall’s talkative style is what made it such a bestseller.
Why Read It: Most of the books on this list are by science writers or scientists writing about the science done by other people. This book is Goodall’s primary account of her own scientific studies. It discusses her methodologies and thought processes, as well as her observations. This is a science primary source. Aside from the fact that it’s just an interesting, compelling read, and enlightening about one of our closest biological cousins, it’s also important to read scientists writing about their own work sometimes.

Image result for michio kaku physics of the impossiblePhysics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
Science: Physics, primarily theoretical physics and astrophysics, with a little bit of engineering thrown in.
Difficulty: The concepts in some of these chapters get pretty heady if you’re not already versed in the basics of physics. The writing is accessible though, and the coolness factor helps make it more appealing. Still, not a book for a reluctant reader. One nice perk is that chapters stand alone, so someone can read a few parts they’re most interested in.
Why Read It: Kaku is one of the best writers when it comes to things like theories of multiple dimensions and time travel. This book covers all of the “cool” and out there physics concepts that young people like to imagine, like time travel and transporters.

Image result for the disappearing spoonThe Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
Science: Chemistry, specifically the elements.
Difficulty: This isn’t an easy book and it’s not short, but lots of interested middle schoolers have made their way through it. For interested students who need an easier read, there’s a new young reader’s edition that looks good, though I haven’t personally checked it out yet.
Why Read It: Kean’s account makes the Periodic Table much more interesting than anything else I’ve ever read on the subject. Little stories about each element’s uses and discovery make it really come to life. Parents should note there are a few adult leaning references, but I wouldn’t call it risque. This is a popular middle school read.

Image result for gulp mary roachGulp by Mary Roach
Science: Anatomy, specifically human digestion, with a lot of odd detours into side sciences.
Difficulty: The text is easy and talkative, however, Roach references a lot of popular culture and uses humor that might go above some younger students’ heads.
Why Read It: Mary Roach is one of the best science writers working today and her ability to make odd branches of science interesting is unsurpassed. A lot of the science she discusses is on the fringes, such as technology to see inside the body or the budding science of fecal transplants. However, in the process, she talks about the basics of digestion and generally gives insight into how scientists think and the difficulties of the human body. In addition to the books mentioned here, any of Roach’s work could be of interest to this age group, though she does occasionally tackle adult subjects, such as sex, in her writing.

Image result for packing for mars mary roachPacking for Mars by Mary Roach
Science: Astrophysics and engineering, as well as more odd detours into side sciences.
Difficulty: All of Roach’s books have the same feel. They’re easy to read and she’s a talkative writer, but she also references pop culture and has a quick wit that might be too fast for some younger students.
Why Read It: Yet again, Roach’s sense of humor and ability to make science seem fun and approachable is unmatched. In this book, she imagines all the different aspects of getting ready to take humans to Mars, which includes a lot of the little practicalities like food, toilets, beds, and clothes. Parents should note that there is a chapter about sex in space. When I assigned this book for school, we just skipped that one.

Image result for surely you're joking mr feynmanSurely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman
Science: Feynman was a physicist, but this book just touches on his work and is more of a memoir.
Difficulty: This is an easy read. Feynman’s charm was part of what made him a popular figure, and it comes through in this writing.
Why Read It: This book isn’t so much enlightening about science itself, but rather what drives a person to be interested in science, how creative thinkers in science think, and how to approach problem solving in science. The memoir is really about various episodes in Feynman’s life and he tells little stories about the internal clock, lock picking, ant trails, and other things. He talks a good bit about his work on the atomic bomb here as well. Parents should note that there are references to things like drinking, drugs, and a nude models in a chapter about art, as well as some risque language. The opening chapters, which are much cleaner, can be read on their own if you want to tackle the book, but not deal with trickier conversations.

Image result for the soul of an octopusThe Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
Science: Zoology, especially animal cognition, or how animals think
Difficulty: Montgomery has an easy, engaging style. It’s not for reluctant readers, but most interested middle schoolers could tackle this one. It’s also a perfect length and filled with light anecdotes.
Why Read It: Many middle schoolers are deeply interested in animals and zoology, so this is a great tie in for that interest and hopefully would expand a student’s interest from pets to more unusual animals. It tackles a lot of bigger questions about how animals think and how aware they really are of us and the world around them. There aren’t easy answers to these questions and our understanding of them is changing all the time, so the juicy discussions you can potentially have from a book like this are excellent.

Image result for the code bookThe Code Book by Simon Singh
Science: Cryptography, the science of codes
Difficulty: It’s not for reluctant readers, but this is definitely a book middle schoolers can tackle. The math can get a bit hard to understand, but the historical anecdotes help the whole story feel engaging. There’s also a young reader’s edition. I use that in my Simplify class about codes. I’ll be teaching a mini-version of that course, including with the young reader’s edition, again this summer.
Why Read It: Secret codes are so much fun to learn about. This is a topic that I think inherently appeals to middle schoolers. Plus, it shows off how math has practical applications and how interdisciplinary topics like history, politics, math, archaeology, and science really are. There are a lot of fun ways you can extend this as well, by doing cryptoquote puzzles or writing you own codes.

GPS at the Rowhouse

GPS is Global Perspective Studies. My business partner at Simplify, Jill Harper, named it and I’m a little bit over the moon at how clever this name is. It’s the high school history and literature core that Jill and I planned and I wrote. The first year, or “Core” is being released soon and we’re running a contest for a free copy. You still have time to enter!

Some of the inspiration for this program comes from my own school experiences, where I took an interdisciplinary course in literature and history for my first two years of high school. In fact, vintage copies of the textbook I had in school, Prentice Hall’s World Masterpieces, is included and heavily used in GPS. The first year program focuses on Africa and Asia, so it includes things like short stories by Najib Mahfouz, Rabindranath Tagore, and Lu Xun and poetry by writers like Rumi, Hafiz, and Shu Ting. It also gives us excerpts from classical texts like The Rig Veda, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Bible. I get a little verklempt when I talk about the joys of this textbook.

Mushroom and BalletBoy have been my product testers. I don’t know if they’d say they love it as they’re not the literature lovers that I am. However, they’re in the midst of reading Siddhartha right now and BalletBoy sang its praises as one of the best books he’s read in awhile, so that’s a relief to hear. However, I feel good about how much they’re learning and how they’re advancing through it.

It’s not always an easy program for them. It pushes them in a variety of ways. One of my goals this year was to up our work level across the board. I wanted them to be writing more, reading more, and just doing more at a high school level. Having students who are really engaged with high level work is an important educational value for me in high school.

Most weeks have short answer history questions. They have to pull out a textbook or read a history book about the place and time period and answer complex, multi-part questions in a paragraph. BalletBoy has a tendency to wax grandiose about topics with no facts. Ancient civilizations in Africa were “the greatest” and had “many innovations” and “eventually led to other civilizations.” Um, way to tell us nothing. Mushroom likes to procrastinate and go over and over these repeatedly. “But what was the cause again? Where is it in the book?” Over time, they’ve been improving. BalletBoy wrote me a lovely explanation of why Aurangzeb’s leadership weakened the Mughal Empire last week. They’ve finally learned to rely more on the textbook and stop trying to furtively check Wikipedia for everything.

Mushroom has turned in a few great assignments for GPS. For his graphic memoir, he had to write about a time he misunderstood something as a young child. He wrote and drew a lovely comic about being a preschooler on a merry-go-round and then thinking that the bed was really, actually still spinning when he went to sleep at night afterward. He also made a hilarious video explaining all the Hindu gods.

I wrote the program to the student, but it’s definitely been a hands on teaching experience for me. Sometimes the kids do the work and I check that it happened and we let it go. Other times, they get stuck and I step in. One of my best moments was carefully dissecting a Hafiz poem with BalletBoy. We read through it, then read it again, and then again. We talked about the meaning of every line and discussed each metaphor and theme. After that, he was able to do the reading questions about it.

We’re currently wrapping up the unit on the Indian subcontinent. The history book we’re reading, The Ocean of Churn, focuses on the Indian Ocean, which has been interesting. Soon, we’ll move on to China and Japan to wrap up the year. I’m worried that we may not quite finish it all. But that’s okay. I packed it full. I know that I often tell people that if they finish more than 80% of a program, that it’s okay to call it done. I’ll definitely be laughing at myself if we have to skip a final reading, but it might happen.

I constantly second guess myself about things like this. Was everything culturally sensitive enough? Did I include enough guidance for students and parents? Could I have done more to touch on history topics I had to gloss over? Should I have chosen different books? But overall, I’m proud of this program. I’m proud to say my kids are doing it.

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.