Simplify Homeschool

I wanted to announce that I have joined up with Simplify, a new homeschool and college counseling business started by two wonderful fellow homeschoolers. Jill and Suji started Simplify to provide a central place to find services related to homeschool and homeschool college counseling. You can click on the image above to get to the main site and learn about all our services or find our bios here.

I’m excited to join up with this growing new business. Simplify is still looking to add consultants with at least seven years of homeschooling experience and an online presence in different geographical areas.

I have been sitting down with new homeschoolers and homeschoolers hoping to revamp what they’re doing for years informally. I’m hopeful about helping more people, especially new homeschoolers who feel thrown into the deep end and old homeschoolers who have hit roadblocks. I’m also glad to see more support services for homeschoolers who are in it until college.

As educational options become more and more diversified, I think more families are going to turn to people to help them figure out how to forge their own paths. I’m excited to be a part of doing that.

Science Fair! (without the fair)

One of the final things we did in the spring before the kids headed off in their summer directions, was science fair style projects. And they were excellent. We didn’t have a science fair to take them to (though there are a few homeschool science fairs around here during the school year, so I’ll save them and maybe we’ll attend one). But that was no big deal. We could still do a project as if it was for one.

We’ve never done a science project like this. We’ve done loads of experiments over the years and of course I’ve taught the scientific method. However, doing a kid-chosen project like this was definitely a super valuable experience that emphasized the scientific method in a new way. I’m glad we waited until middle school because I’m not totally sure if they’d have gotten as much out of it at a younger age. However, this was so good that I think we’ll do it again next year.

Mushroom was doing a study of cells for school. Then I had him read through Ellen McHenry’s Protozoa and he did some of the worksheets and activities. When it came time to do a project, I suggested he do something with the topic he’d been studying already and he came up with a project comparing two different infusions of stream water. He hypothesized based on his research that they would cultivate different types of protists.

That hypothesis turned out to be wrong. However, they did have different effects (hay is better than rice, at least with Rock Creek stream water). He took photos using a microscope camera. He then made an amazing board and wrote a really solid science report about his method. Overall, he worked really hard and breezed through.

BalletBoy had a longer trek to figuring something out. He’d been studying meteorology for school and I suggested he find a project that would go with that. He initially wanted to try a project having to do with charting the temperature. But that fizzled. Then he decided to try this project where you test the humidity by making your own hygrometer. If you don’t know the website Science Buddies, it’s a great search tool for finding science fair project ideas. Unfortunately, after two attempts at making the hygrometer, he couldn’t get it to do a thing.

Frustrated, he asked if he could poke around and do something else entirely. He found a project making bath bombs and decided to try that. He altered the project from the website, doing some research and coming up with his own recipe. Then, while it turned out to be a pretty grueling day of messing up and not measuring properly, he made and then tested the bombs. His hypothesis was also disproven. The recipe he invented wasn’t the fizziest. But that was fine. He had some data to show for his project. And while he didn’t quite have the graphic design flair that Mushroom did and I ended up having to direct his report and project board more, he felt really good about what he’d done in the end.

This is one of those “school” experiences that I think it’s worth trying to provide for homeschoolers but that it’s easy to forget about in the rush to finish a curriculum. It can also be a messy endeavor for families (we had large tupperwares of stream water growing small beasties on the mantle for weeks) and I know that some families recoil just thinking about managing it. But it was very worth it here, even if there wasn’t a fair and blue ribbons at the end of the process. It was great for learning organization, writing, and presentation skills, not to mention really emphasizing the scientific method.

 

I’m No Mama Bear… And That’s a Good Thing

I want to explain about a parenting pet peeve of mine. The whole “Mama Bear” thing makes me a little insane.

You probably know what I’m talking about. When a parent perceives that their child is threatened, they claim that they’ll go all “Mama Bear” on the threatener. Sometimes the language is different. I’ve seen parents say things like, “Don’t mess with my kid!” or even, “Come after my kid and I’ll cut you!”

I’ll cut you? Are we parents or stereotyped 90’s gangsters?

Now, if one of my kids were actually threatened with imminent danger, perhaps with a real weapon or in the midst of a natural disaster or the like, I’d like to believe that adrenaline and super strength would kick in and I’d move heaven and earth to come to the rescue. Picture the zombies coming, and picture me suddenly gaining the ability to lift two half grown people and whisk them to safety with my bare hands.

But let’s get real. Most of the times I see this sort of language used, there are no zombies. There are no weapons, no dire situations, not even any real bullies. It’s more like, another toddler took my kid’s toys on the playground and then threw dirt at him. The teacher unfairly penalized and singled out my kid. The crazy stranger yelled at us because she thought I cut in line while my kid was there.

Sure, none of these situations are awesome. But do they really require violence? If you storm onto the playground and make a strange toddler cry for throwing dirt or begin yelling at the parent, have you actually solved anything? If you consistently make your interactions with teachers confrontational, will that help? If you engage in a threatening way with a stranger in a crowd, is that likely to end well? And what do those things demonstrate to your children?

A lot of the interactions that I see people say they’re going to go after other kids for (and pause for a moment with that, knowing that we’re talking about a grown up feeling justified for threatening children) seem so biased that I don’t even know how to unpack them. When a kid is genuinely bullied, that’s a pretty scary, scarring, and horrible thing that requires your intervention. But your kid being excluded from a group? Your kid being called names a few times? It’s hard when our kids are hurt to realize that the perpetrators are just as socially inept and inexperienced as your kids. I’ve seen my kids and others unintentionally exclude a newcomer many times. It’s not helping anyone’s social skills to have a parent storm in and blame them for something they didn’t even know they were doing. They don’t need to be threatened. They need guidance and help through these interactions. A good check yourself guide is in this article: Rude vs. Mean vs. Bullying.

Some people will probably think that the whole “Mama Bear” routine is metaphorical. It’s a joke, not meant to be taken seriously, despite any “I’ll hunt you down” style comments on social media. I would say that if it’s a joke, it’s really not funny, just because violence isn’t that funny. And pretending to threaten people isn’t that funny. It’s not funny when fathers threaten their daughter’s dates and it’s not funny when parents threaten people we see around our kids.

Of course, sometimes we have to fight for our kids. Sometimes the world is unfair and our kids are mistreated. And while I don’t step in every time I see other kids being rude or every time I see minor injustices because I want my kids to slowly learn to deal with those things, I don’t think kids should have to deal with serious problems on their own. They deserve to know we’re in their corner and on their side, not just to be an ear or take care of them afterward, but to step in and help make things right. However, when we do that, we don’t need to do it emotionally and irrationally, lashing out at others. We should be measured and researched. If a child is being discriminated against, we should go in armed with information and determination. And if a child is being mistreated by their peers, arm them with strategies and figure out how to create boundaries.

When it’s not called for, back off and just be a decent person. Not every hurt requires anyone to step in. But when it’s called for, don’t be a “Mama Bear,” become a “Mama Lawyer.”

Homeschoolers Need Better Advocacy

Coming out of my post-election, post-DI season, winter coma to hammer home something that has driven me crazy for years now.

This photo has nothing to do with this post. I just wanted to rub it in that we scored Kusama Infinity Mirrors tickets.

The greater homeschooling community needs a better media and political advocacy organization.

What’s reminding me of this today, you may ask? The Washington Post Magazine ran this piece about how some of HSDLA’s former Generation Joshua type rising political activists have turned to advocating for more homeschool regulation. If you follow these issues, there’s not much new in this piece and the individual personalities profiled simply don’t have particularly compelling or unusual stories. Plus, while none of the people profiled seem to be involved with the group, I found the omission of CRHE, the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, to be somewhat baffling. This is an organization doing exactly what people profiled do which has a good bit of visibility in homeschooling circles. Why weren’t they mentioned?

In the piece, the Post claims in the headline that, “These activists want greater home-school monitoring. Parent groups say no way.” However, the only “parent group” they talk about is HSLDA, which is not a group of homeschooling parents at all. It’s a group of conservative lawyers.

The implication in that piece, and countless other media pieces about homeschooling, is that HSLDA speaks for homeschool parents. Honestly, I’m sick of it. I’m beyond sick of it.

HSLDA and its leader Michael Farris do not speak for me. Nor do they speak for the majority of homeschooling families I know. They are fear-mongers when it comes to homeschool rights, sending out a constant barrage of email alerts designed to make families think the government is out to get them, thus increasing their revenue and membership. They use their clout to kill legislation that has little to do with homeschooling, such as nearly singlehandedly keeping the US from signing a disability rights treaty or lobbying against LGBT rights. And local homeschoolers do not always like the positions they take in updating or changing state homeschooling laws but because of their high profile, they have the ability to move in with their agenda, getting people nationwide to lobby state legislators the way they want.

As I’ve written about before on this blog, educational neglect and abuse are real problems in some parts of the homeschool world and all homeschoolers would do well to get wise to that fact of life, especially when it comes to things like using social media to share the pleas, petitions, lobbying cries, and fundraising efforts for homeschool families who are in trouble with the law. Too often, the biased reports about homeschool families sent out by groups like HSLDA don’t show the whole picture.

But that’s exactly why homeschoolers increasingly need a new advocacy group to speak for the growing majority of us who are not schooling because of evangelical protestantism. We’re schooling for primarily secular reasons, we’re more diverse religiously and ethnically, and we have positions across the political spectrum. We need a group that can field media requests and political requests for “the homeschool position” so that HSLDA doesn’t simply try to speak for everyone. Some states have groups like this already, but not all. And the statewide groups are also often just as exclusive in their mission as HSLDA.

I don’t know what the “right” amount of regulation of homeschoolers is. I know that even a lot of “good” homeschoolers think that homeschooling should be completely unregulated and tracked. And I admit that most of the regulation that already exists in some states seems to be mostly hoops to jump through that I think anyone who is determined to hide neglect or abuse can probably do with relative ease. I think the CRHE has some good ideas, but I can’t say I agree with every single point.

While the CRHE and the views of homeschool alumni in general are starting to be seen as important, don’t speak for homeschool parents. I really believe that this message that we believe in sane regulation is strongest from within. I think it would be amazing to have a group that believed in advocating for homeschooling as a positive schooling method and believed that children’s rights were important.

I don’t know how this comes to be. Many of the secular focused groups that have sprung up in the last few years have been focused primarily on curriculum and community, not advocacy or politics. And several of these groups have had strong starts only to fall apart over time. It’s hard to sustain a community that’s more diverse and divergent in its viewpoints. However, every time I read another piece that implies HSLDA speaks for me, I am reminded of how needed this is.

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.