Tag Archives: home education

Our Beloved Co-op

Our tiny co-op had its final meeting last week and I’m still a little weepy when I think about it. It was time to end. Several kids are headed to school. My kids are starting high school, which brings with it some specific challenges in terms of getting in academics. But this co-op has been in existence for an amazing nine years, which is a really long time for a small, family based co-op.

We ended with an overnight camping trip that the kids planned. The kids planning it was pretty essential. Since its inception, this has been a child-led co-op in various ways, becoming more and more child-led as they grew and matured.

I keep meaning to write a more detailed post about our co-op. I don’t think this is that post. But it’s been a really amazing ride over the years. When we started, the kids picked the topics and the parents taught the lessons. We rotated houses week by week. We made decisions based on consensus, a habit I picked up working in Quaker schools. They learned about things like dinosaurs and history. When they were really little, we used to operated the “Co-op Time Machine,” a pillow fort in the basement that traveled in time to visit the Big Bang, among other things.

At some point, we transitioned to asking the kids to plan the units and decide exactly what they wanted to do. They put on a play, made a movie, staged a fundraiser, wrote their own roleplaying game, and many other projects.

Over the years, there have been all kinds of co-op experiments. The kids played with “co-op money” one fall, playing an elaborate game of trading goods and services. The kid who sold muffins every morning was the winner, I think. There was a co-op yearbook several years, as well as a co-op newspaper created by BalletBoy that ran several editions for a couple of years. Kids came and went over the years, though a few families remained the same.

Co-op has been a hugely stable force in our lives for so many years that it’s staggering. Most schooled kids don’t get this type of stability in their peer group. I feel so lucky to have gotten this experience for them.

As we left the campsite for the final meeting, it was us and the other original family who had been there since the beginning. That’s it,  I realized. There’d be no more co-op. In the fall, the kids opted to do a STEM-centered day of classes once a week.

I feel like nowadays, if a co-op doesn’t have a slate of classes, a rented space, and an official nonprofit designation it’s not a co-op at all. However, this little, free endeavor has been perfect for us. It took the parents sharing a powerful vision for the kids. It wasn’t without its rocky moments and the kids are hardly perfect to each other. Many of the projects fizzled into nothing much. However, this is what homeschooling can, especially for the K-8 years. Cheap and child-driven. Filled with play and friendships.

Looking Forward to SEA

The next few weeks are busy, busy for me here at the Rowhouse. The kids are finishing up their school year, wrapping up Algebra I and some literature and various other things we’ve done this year. I officially “graduated” them with a special meal and a gift of decent school style backpacks. They’re the same Jansport model that I still have from my own youth. Mine made it through high school, college, and then as I traveled extremely light across Asia in my early 20’s. That’s a good backpack and hopefully theirs will see some good adventures too. First up, we’re taking a short “8th grade trip” to New York to see a Broadway show and hit some spots the kids have never visited.

I’m also chatting with clients for Simplify, which is fun and exciting, to hear about other people’s homeschools and challenges and help them out. I’m trying to finish up my book about homeschooling middle school so that it should be out within the next month or so. It’s getting some final revisions and a solid round of copy editing by a professional. I still have to choose a title, which is a little nerve wracking. Your Complete Middle School Homeschool Survival Guide? Surviving Homeschooling the Middle School Years? Something more clever and cute? Eye-rolls and Deep Thinking: Homeschooling the Middle School Years. I’ll figure it out soon!

Finally, I’m putting the final touches on my talks for the SEA Homeschool Conference in Atlanta. I’m so excited to see some of you there! It’s going to be lots of fun. I’m especially looking forward to talking about middle school. It’s like crystalizing my book into presentation form and it’s helping me discern the most important points.

If you’re on the fence about going to the SEA Conference, there are some amazing speakers there and some great looking presentations. If you live anywhere around Atlanta, you can also get a single day pass now, which seems like a great option if you’re just hoping for a small dose of homeschool inspiration. I know I often resist these sorts of events, but when I go to them, I really do come home fired up about new things and more reflective about our practices. Homeschool parents deserve professional development too!

Organization is More Than Notebooks and Shelves

Hey! Did I mention that I’m working on a book about homeschooling middle school? There are hardly any books specifically about the middle school years and I really think there should be one. Middle schoolers are… well, they’re the best. Prickly, passionate, wild, playful, deep thinkers. They’re great. Anyway, here’s a second little snippet. This one is from the chapter I am working on about organization. I really cracked myself up with this one because I am not someone who is beautifully organized. To prove it, here’s a photo of what our homeschool space, which doubles as the dining room, looks like.

Partway through writing this section, I paused and looked at my notes and figuratively scratched my head. I’m probably the last person who should try writing The Life Changing Homeschool Magic of Tidying Up. I’m not that organized. If you saw our dining room, where we do most of our schoolwork, then you wouldn’t be especially impressed by our shelves or our messy bins of stuff. We’re not homeschool magazine cover-worthy. Not even close. I also don’t keep extensively organized planners or binders. We don’t do things like workboxes or any of the other fancy organization systems that some homeschoolers use. Why, then, did I think organization was worth a full chapter and so many words?

The real focus of your homeschool should be your kids, not your planners. Middle school requires us to be especially flexible. When homeschooling is at its best, we’re being flexible and dynamic. We are engaging our kids and making sure they’re progressing while giving them space to be themselves. We’re honoring that sometimes they roll their eyes and sometimes they get excited about ancient Egyptian tombs or quantum physics. We’re letting them wander around in circles for half an hour and then bringing them back to that math book without judgment.

On the other hand, without at least some modicum of organization, the whole thing can fall apart. Luckily, we don’t have to keep detailed records like in high school, when transcripts and college admittance is on the line. However, I think keeping the chaos of middle school somewhat organized can be a real challenge. There will still be papers, books, schedules, and projects to keep in some sort of order. How will you assign work or give feedback? How will you show up on time or encourage kids to be responsible for their assignments or things?

At the end of middle school, one of my sons needed a middle school transcript for a program he was considering. As we compiled it, I looked at the myriad of things we did and thought about how it needed to be molded into some sort of sense. What was an elective or an extracurricular? How did a study of microscopic stream life and several months building model rockets add up to science? Of course, it all looked fine on paper in the end. You can make it come together however you need to. If I had wanted to, I could have just written “Math 7” followed by “Math 8” and “History 6” followed by “History 7” and “History 8.” However, I wanted to be a little bit honest, so I put down “Science of Flight” and “Graphic Design” and other units he’d done. I was struck by how piecemeal it seemed, but also how diverse and accomplished. He seemed like such a serious young kid when I looked at all the things he had done on paper.

Middle school is wild unexpected like that. When you’re teaching a child to read, at the start of the year, they’re struggling through basic readers and maybe a year later they’re casually reading Frog and Toad or even a Magic Treehouse book. However, in middle school, sometimes it can be harder to pinpoint these particular triumphs. It’s even harder if you have a middle schooler who gets a case of spaciness or grouchiness. In the day to day, you can easily begin to feel like you’re running in place without ever getting anywhere.

Organization can actually help with all of this. It can help you organize your thoughts, make sure you stay reasonably on track amidst a chaotic life, and help you pause and reflect so you can see that progress.

I’ve seen amazing homeschoolers who can’t see how amazing they are because they’re disorganized. I’ve also seen homeschools brought down by a lack of organization. It’s not that the homeschool was actually failing, just that the parent couldn’t feel a sense of success and couldn’t keep up with the chaos of growing kids. Middle school is tough. You need some level of organization to fall back on.

Organization is more than just where you keep the pens and the notebooks. You should have places for those, sure. However, organization is really the underlying way that we communicate with our kids, give them essential feedback, reflect on what we’re doing, and make changes going forward. Organization is how we structure our days and where we put our attention. Organization is how your system runs. It decides what happens and what stays just an idea. That’s super important stuff that deserves some of your attention.

This is not to say that I think you need to suddenly become an office supply advertisement. Some people do love to have systems that include tons of bits and pieces. It can help to have the right piece of paper in front of you every morning, or the right app open on your phone helping remind you to stay the course or at least record the veering course for posterity. However, your systems can also be pretty simple.

Let’s just be honest. Simple systems are best, but even simple systems tend toward chaos. No matter what organization system you implement, it won’t be perfect. This isn’t to entreat you to work toward perfection. Just like how your student is going to work through a messy, chaotic time in their life, you guiding them through it will also likely be a little messy and chaotic.

My main goal is that you recognize that organization can be a linchpin in your homeschool. It can make or break things. That’s why it’s worthy of your attention and thoughtfulness. But also, don’t judge yourself when your systems inevitably don’t work out or don’t keep up. Just reflect on what’s working, let go of what you don’t need, and revise what you do need.

Middle Schoolers

I mentioned before that I’m working on a book about homeschooling middle school. Then I joked on social media that another one of the things I’m not doing is blogging, but I really am working on this.

It’s amazing to me that there aren’t more resources targeted to homeschoolers and prospective homeschoolers about how middle school is the right time for homeschooling. I believe in homeschooling these difficult, glorious, crazy years so much! They’re so rewarding. The relationship you’ll have with your kids is so rewarding. The teaching and learning you’ll do is so rewarding. I know it’s not for everyone. Homeschooling never will be. But middle school. Think about it.

Anyway, with that in mind, below is a little except of what I’ve been working on.

Look at those grown up kids!

The kid you start middle school with will not be the kid you finish with.

The kid you start sixth grade with will probably be short. They will probably still have toys and enjoy some imaginative play, even if the toys are now more collectables and the imaginative play is sophisticated. They’ll still love playgrounds and enjoy children’s museums. Your son will still have a little kid voice. Your daughter may not be wearing a bra yet. They’ll probably be comfortable in their bodies and confident on the playground. Most of them will be natural early risers and may even get up before you if you’re not a morning person.

They’ll start out in all different places academically, but it won’t be unusual if your new sixth grader can’t yet write an essay or a short story on their own or still struggles with things like operations with fractions. Even your gifted writers will probably sound young in their writing. They’ll often be more focused on facts and trivia than deeper analysis. A lot of them will still be very black and white in how they see the world, with everything either good or evil and not a lot in between. While they’ll be well past learning to cut a straight line with scissors, a sizable number may still struggle with small motor skills that you keep thinking they “should” have mastered by now, like neatly measuring the flour or not overusing all the glue.

The kid you graduate eighth grade with will be tall. Your daughters will likely be close to their adult heights. They’ll look mature and be able to wear adult clothes. They’ll be ready to start shaving if they choose. Your sons will still be growing, but many of them will be taller than their mothers with shoes as big as their father’s. A few of them may have even shaved for the first time. Their bodies will surprise even them sometimes. Your boys may bump into things because they don’t realize they take up so much space. Even your girls may seem to regress in their physical abilities for awhile. Hopefully, they’re starting to be comfortable in these new bodies by the time they head to high school, but it’s not unusual for many of them not to be completely at ease yet. They’ll like to sleep in and may even need to be prodded out of bed every morning to ensure that they don’t stay up half the night.

They’ll mostly be finished playing with toys and make believe. Their interests will feel more grown up. The kid who loved to play will be channeling it into sports even more than before, the kid who loved imaginary games will be playing roleplaying games, the kid who loved to color will be doing art with more serious materials, the kid who loved to tinker will be building things that are more sophisticated. It’ll be a subtle difference, but their interests will seem serious and not like childhood fancies.

Academically, they’ll still be all over the place, but the leaps in skill you’ll see will be stunning. Barring learning differences, your student who struggled to write a paper will sort of have the hang of it. Your student who kept forgetting how to add fractions will be puzzling out algebra problems. Your students who started out ahead of their peers may be dipping into college lectures and work worthy of high school credits. The students who seemed to revel in trivia and expertise will have mostly moved away from listing fact after fact to ask you big questions. In fact, they’ll all be asking these big questions more often, and be more interested in questions that don’t have easy, black and white answers.

Like I said, the kid you finish middle school with won’t be the kid you started with.

Different Paths, Same Endpoint

Way back in first grade, we started with MEP Math, which I adored, but which turned out to be all wrong for both my kids at that point. When both the kids were frustrated by MEP’s tricky problems, I pulled out Math Mammoth and tried that.

BalletBoy took to the Math Mammoth immediately. He liked that it was so straightforward. It made him practice a good bit, but he didn’t mind that, especially when I didn’t make him do all the problems. In fact, BalletBoy kept doing Math Mammoth all the way through fourth grade math. At that point, the Math Mammoth shine seemed to wear off. The order of topics got a little confusing for him. So we jumped ship. We tried a number of different things, including almost a full year’s worth of the Singapore program, Math in Focus, which was great, but also didn’t quite work for him.

In the end, we went back to MEP Math. BalletBoy finished out his elementary math doing MEP. This time, the tricky problems worked for him. Knowing that he was good at math that emphasized following strong examples and just getting in the practice, I got a vintage copy of Dolciani’s Pre-Algebra: An Accelerated Course to use with him. It was perfect and he did the whole book.

On the other hand, Mushroom found Math Mammoth just as stressful and confusing as he had found MEP Math. For several months, I didn’t make him do anything formal for math. He read living math books and played math games. At some point, I let him try Miquon Math and finally we had found something that clicked. Mushroom did so incredibly well with Miquon that I came to adore the program. Unlike BalletBoy’s Math Mammoth, this was a program that inspired me as a teacher. The number relationships and the huge flexibility of the Cuisenaire Rods as a learning tool was perfect.

When Mushroom ran out of Miquon books, he turned to Beast Academy, which unfortunately only had a few volumes out at the time. However, he did them all. He started talking about how much he loved math. While he never became a fast worker, he was sometimes an incredible problem solver with math. He could think creatively about it. I really credited that to Miquon. He thought about math in a much simpler, straightforward way than his twin.

When we ran out of Beast Academy books, he continued his eclectic math path. He did a lot of the Key to Math books, as well as some problem solving books, like the Ed Zaccaro books. I started him on Jousting Armadillos, which is a pre-algebra program. Unfortunately, the amount of writing focus in that program was all wrong for him. He finished it, but barely. We took a math break, then he started in on Jacobs’s Mathematics: A Human Endeavor, which started to re-invigorate his love of math, though he never quite regained it. Mushroom has a lot of anxiety about academics in general, even though he keeps making good progress.

Having liked Jacobs’s other books, I chose Jacobs for Mushroom’s algebra program. Since BalletBoy did so well with Dolciani’s pre-algebra, I assumed he would continue with Dolciani’s algebra program. However, partway through the year, BalletBoy hit a major snag with algebra and I hit a major snag in teaching it. Since I was loving Jacobs, we made the switch.

That means that, for the first time since the very beginning of first grade, my twins are heading into high school finishing the exact same math program, at more or less the same pace.

It’s fascinating to me how different their paths have been. BalletBoy continues to be a “get it done” math student for the most part. He sometimes gets very stuck in his thinking and I have to tell him to stop and try again the next day. He argues with me about math, only to realize he’s completely wrong when he tries to do the problem. Mostly he likes to do his work and he tends to score well, especially if the problem sets are repetitive. If he gets to one he doesn’t understand, he’s liable to skip it and happily go on to the next problem. Overall, he’s in very good shape for finishing algebra.

Mushroom meandered through so many different math concepts. He continues to be a slow worker. While he doesn’t like to admit it, he does better when he can get engrossed in a few very challenging problems instead of a lot of repetitive practice. He second guesses himself and refuses to move on until he understands, which can be good, but can also bring down his scores on tests.

Despite all these differences, Jacobs’s Elementary Algebra has been great for both of my students. It’s not a perfect program, but it has enough challenges and enough practice. It has engaging introductions and enough example problems. It’s really a thorough and great program. I’m also just thrilled to be back teaching the same math again!

I also think there’s something to be said here about letting kids take their own paths through math. It’s okay to take different ways through the material. In the end, you’re going to emerge in more or less the same place.

Come See Me at SEA!

Guess what? I’m going to be speaking at the SEA Homeschool Conference in July. If you don’t know SEA, they’re the Secular Eclectic Academic Homeschoolers. They have a super active to bursting Facebook group and this is their second annual conference. I’m excited to be there representing Simplify Homeschool.

I’m going to be talking about one of my favorite topics: middle schoolers, and how to survive having them in your homeschool! I’m also going to be talking about how to move from a more relaxed, unschoolish influenced homeschool to a more rigorous one when you need to, and back again when it’s time for that.

If you’re planning on going, I’d love to greet you there! I’m already dreading being socially awkward with everyone though!

 

Things We Aren’t Doing

We haven’t been field tripping much. But hey, here’s us getting on the Metro. We must have been somewhere!

I’m really firmly of the belief that you just cannot do it all. I know some people look at our lives and think, gosh, Farrar sure is killing it at this homeschool thing. I think we’re doing okay. And we’re definitely killing it at some things. On the other hand, every time I hear about things a friend is doing that we’re not, I similarly think, gee, friend sure is killing it at homeschooling. I wish I was too!

We’re drawn to admiring the things we’re not accomplishing ourselves, I think. But in order to have room to do the things we do accomplish, we have to drop things that are good practices. There’s just not enough hours for all the wonderful things in the world. You have to make choices. But choices are good! They let us focus. And we can always change our focus if we need to. But it’s good not to live in regret too much. It’s okay that we’re not doing everything. We’re doing other things.

With that in mind, instead of the things we are doing, here are some things we’re not doing.

We’re not taking weekly field trips.
When the kids were little, we were out somewhere awesome and educational practically every other day. Nowadays? Well, we did have a wonderful, full day at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History a few weeks ago. Mushroom went to a bunch of astronomy lectures and stargazing opportunities in the fall. But overall, we are just not on the go with field trips and opportunities constantly. We’re too busy with classes and things like trying to get through algebra.

We’re not reading aloud.
I always said I’d keep reading aloud all through middle school. However, with kids who don’t get home to even eat dinner until nearly 9 pm many nights a week, it’s just not happening.

We’re not practicing standardized testing.
We were so on this in the fall. And we’ll get back on it again. But right now, it’s fallen by the wayside. Sometimes things slip away that we need to do. Eventually, I drag them back and reimplement them. This is probably going to be one of those things throughout high school. I can tell already.

We can’t speak Spanish.
We can’t speak any foreign languages. Well, I know some Chinese and a smattering of leftover high school French. But we’re not doing any language instruction. After struggling through it for the last year and a half with BalletBoy, I finally gave up. I already have a plan for implementing Spanish with an online tutor come fall so that the boys can get their needed high school credits in it. I sometimes feel guilty that I didn’t push a foreign language earlier, but it is what it is. Nothing to do but move forward.

We’re not hanging out at the park day.
I’m a huge proponent of getting in open social time. But we haven’t been hanging out at the teen-centric park day. We’ve just been too busy with structured things.

We’re not doing history.
The other day, I realized that this term, no one is studying history. Mushroom is studying geography and foreign affairs in a local class. BalletBoy put more science leaning topics like anatomy on his plate for this term. History is my subject! I was a history major. I taught history in my school career! But… it’s not happening now at the Rowhouse.

We don’t have a great morning routine.
I miss the days when we had a strong morning routine. I left “morning work” out for the kids. It was warm ups like logic problems, silly creative coloring pages, and worksheet math drills disguised as games. When I came downstairs to start the day, we’d go over the morning work and then start on the sofa with reading aloud. We did this nearly every single day for years. These days, everyone gets up at different times. The kids check emails and youtube feeds. They munch waffles and ignore me. They start with different subjects. It’s just not a strong start. But I haven’t had the energy to make a change. I’ve put that energy elsewhere.