I tend to just dive into work, but with one more visit from relatives and other things going on, it didn’t seem like a good idea to start in on regular math and writing and so forth last week. Then again, I hate when we have our “Box Day” and then we don’t actually use anything for a couple of weeks because, you know, life.
I decided instead to break out some of the fun stuff and take a few field trips. It worked out well and I think it got all of us into a better frame of mind for school. Is it possible that homeschooled kids need some deschool learning now and then? We’re constantly doing stuff that’s out of the box and our daily school looks so different from kids in most brick and mortar schools. Yet I still found we needed a week of doing something different every day to break that sense of learning as sitting down at the table. Routines are good, but so is breaking away from a routine.
We also had a chance to see our co-op friends, we went to the Museum of Natural History to play with the fossils, Miles played in a marimba concert, we cuddled to books on the sofa and raided the library for a tall stack of dinosaur books, and tried our hands at math problems with no numbers (more about those in a future post). Overall, a very good week.
Originally, I didn’t really plan anything to mark the passing of the boys from fifth grade into sixth. However, they heard about school kids having elementary school graduation and immediately wanted to know what I had planned. Nothing, I admitted.
Every new school year brings new challenges and I’m always aware of moving forward, striving to be better, trying to – not keep up with peers, but to be mindful of what peers might be up to. However, I try to de-emphasize this stuff with the kids. You’re doing the work that’s right for you, the challenges that are right for you, making progress for yourself. And, honestly, since they have friends of many different ages on different sides of various arbitrary lines, I don’t want them to get the idea that they’re “ahead” or “behind” anyone in particular. They’re just on their own paths.
But then I thought… You know, arbitrary lines can be fun. Arbitrary lines are why we celebrate the new year and birthdays. They’re why the new millennium was so much fun to celebrate. They’re why we all hold up our hands and scream (what? that’s not your tradition?) when we cross a state line on a road trip. And they’re why, when we passed this, driving through Namibia, we absolutely had to pull over to the side of the road in what was otherwise the middle of nowhere and take a picture. And, let me tell you, when something is in “the middle of nowhere” in Namibia, it’s like another level of middle of nowhere.
So I decided, hey, let’s celebrate the crossing of this arbitrary line. I whipped up graduation caps from craft foam and string we had in the art supplies and we took these photos. (In case that sounds too crafty, I promise that it was absurdly fast. If you have a kid approaching an arbitrary line, all I did was make a circle of foam to fit on their heads then hot glued a square on top of it and taped a little tassel on. I’m sure it would work with cardboard or even stiff paper as well.)
Then we went out for a fancy breakfast. Every was gratified. Hooray for crossing lines!
I often think of portfolios as being for me. Technically, I suppose, they’re for the threat of the state, but honestly, I taught in schools that used portfolio assessments and I came to believe in them strongly, which is why I would do them even if I wasn’t supposed to keep records of our education (which, by the way, are never checked).
I have an older post about how we do portfolios here. It’s probably due for an upgrade, but things are basically still the same. We toss everything into a box until portfolio time. Then we go through it and the kids choose their best work from all the art, worksheets, dictations, math workbook pages, projects, and so forth. They write a short self-assessment, I write an assessment, and then it all goes in the portfolio in plastic sleeves, which makes it look super neat and pretty.
Every time I do it, it’s a huge boost for me as a teacher. Homeschooling can be lonely, as they say. You don’t get feedback about how you’re doing and it’s easy to lose sight of how things are going. It’s hard to feel like you’re getting anywhere. Putting together the portfolio, with the list of all the books we read, field trips we took, and all those examples of work is such a huge boost. You can see the progress and it’s very gratifying for me as a teacher.
For the last few weeks, Mushroom’s anxiety levels have been up. He’s had trouble finishing up his work for the school year simply because he’s been so keyed up with worries about everything and nothing. The moment he started to go through his work, he lit up with joy. By the time he had compiled all his examples, he was glowing. Seeing all the work he did over the summer was a huge boost to his self-confidence.
I’m reminded how important it is to celebrate our kids’ work and how it doesn’t have to be done with anything but a figurative mirror. Having the time and space to pause and see what he had done was a great experience for him.
I saw a question go around recently online: Should learning be fun? I thought I knew my answer, but from there, my head went round and round. Follow me for a moment.
My first thought was that there are really two schools of thought: that learning should be hard work and that learning should be fun. My knee-jerk reaction is to throw myself into the second camp. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I strive to make learning fun for my kids. I take them on field trips, I plan projects and experiences for them, we play games for learning all the time, and I generally want learning to be fun. Learning can be fun.
I dislike when people dismiss the value of fun in learning because I think it can be an excuse not to make that effort. Handing a child a preset plan can be a lot easier on us as the teacher than planning out a set of experiences where a child can play and get messy. Using a worksheet with a clear end and beginning point can feel a lot safer than sitting down to play a game. Yet doing those things can be essential and important.
Then my second thought was that, maybe learning doesn’t have to be fun. Sometimes it can be hard work, which is a value to itself. But, to flip the question around, I felt learning should not be miserable. When a child is in tears every day learning, then something has gone deeply wrong. School shouldn’t be painful and when a child is upset, we shouldn’t dismiss that. It’s important to figure out if a child isn’t ready for something, needs more support, needs a different presentation, or has a learning issue that is causing problems.
But then finally I thought, you know, none of these things apply all the time. Sometimes learning is teary and miserable. I don’t think we should try to make it that way or push anyone to experience it that way, but sometimes it just is that way no matter what we do. And I think that’s inevitable. There have been times that I learned things “the hard way” and while I am not eager to repeat those experiences, once I come to the other side of them, I am glad I made it.
Basically, I started to realize that maybe there is no should when it comes to learning. Learning can be hard or easy, fun or arduous, engaging or boring, joyfully or drudgery. And really, all those things are all okay at different times.
I’m not particularly a fan of Montessori methods overall, but one of the wonderful concepts in Montessori is of the prepared environment. We prepare the best environment for learning that we can by planning projects, choosing curricula, and generally making learning as good as we can make it. That means that we strive for fun sometimes, but also that we strive for engagement and interest. Sometimes that’s even better than fun. Having a debate about ethics or literature isn’t necessarily fun, but it can be deeply enjoyable and engaging. Solving a difficult logic or math problem can be rewarding even if it isn’t fun.
And the other thing we do is help kids see the meaning of the process. Much of learning isn’t inherently fun. We may dress it up with games or songs or the like, but copywork or math drills aren’t inherently rewarding and joyful. What’s joyful is the payoff down the line when we can use what we learned to craft our own compelling sentences or solve difficult problems more easily. There’s never a reason to tell a student to learn something “just because” – just because it’s on the syllabus, just because it’s in the textbook, just because everyone else does. Seeing the end result helps when the learning does feel like drudgery, so that we can take a little drudgery.
Learning is such a complex thing. The more we do it, the more potentially “fun” it can be because we’re building a network of information upon which we can build more and more. But it isn’t going to be one thing, nor should we expect it to be. Different learners need different approaches. Different subjects require different experiences.
Someone posted a link to this article about the most important things to know about homeschooling on a local list and I have to admit that it really rubbed me the wrong way. It’s perhaps a telling sign of how far I’ve moved away from some of my idealistic, unschool-influenced roots, but the rah rah homeschooling is perfect mentality is something that grates on me these days. You won’t find many people who are more pro-homeschooling than I am, but I feel like it has to be tempered with a bit of realism. So I thought I’d rewrite their list the way I see things.
1. Homeschooling is life changing for you and your kids. You may learn as much as the kids, if not more sometimes. It can change the way you see yourself and your kids if you are willing to let it. Along the way, there will be lots of uncertainty and chaos that you have to learn to live with. Model your learning for the kids and show them your love of reading, problem-solving and creating and it will help them learn those skills too.
2. You don’t need special credentials or even need to be highly educated. The most important thing you need is the drive to do it and the willingness to learn as you go or to admit when you don’t know how to teach something and be willing to find another way for a child to learn. However, not everyone should homeschool. If you don’t feel that drive or if life circumstances make it too difficult, then that’s okay too.
3. Some kids will be easy to teach. They’ll want to learn and you’ll find it easy to satisfy that. Other kids will be resistant to learning. They’ll try your patience. Sometimes it will be the same kid, just on different days. Your primary job is to help your kids learn how to learn and hopefully learn how to love learning. If you keep that goal in mind, it can be a guiding principle, but it doesn’t come naturally to every child.
4. Homeschooling is legal everywhere in the U.S. You don’t need to join a legal defense organization (as in, HSLDA) in order to protect your rights. You do need to follow the laws of your state or jurisdiction, which can vary. Some states require nothing, others require more extensive records. No one should try to use homeschooling to keep their children secret from the government. Ethically, your children have a right to their own homeschool records to prove that they were educated. If you homeschool, you should realize that, sadly, some people do use homeschooling as a way to mask abuse. Don’t be a voice supporting those people. It’s good to stick up for fellow homeschoolers, but put an eye of caution into your view.
5. Most homeschoolers don’t “do school” from 9:00 am until 3:00 pm. Because it’s individualized instruction with a very low teacher to student ratio, there’s a lot less time wasted in homeschooling. However, that doesn’t mean that you necessarily get everything done in as little as an hour. Some days, or even years, you will, and some kids will be fast workers. But other kids will work slowly and other years will take more of your time every day. The most important thing to realize is that your time can be flexible. You can have short days but school year round. Or you can have long days but only school four days a week. You can blend life and schooling more seamlessly or sit down at desks and work hard for several hours then have plenty of play time. There’s not one model to make it work.
6. Socialization is something you have to work at a little harder when your kids are homeschooled. They will not have a ready made peer group and social scene. Sometimes you have to put in time driving them place to place or making friends with the other parents, things that you wouldn’t have to do if they were in school. However, the pay off can be huge. Homeschooled kids can have a much richer social life with people of different ages and experiences than their schooled peers do. They can sometimes avoid some of the negative aspects of socializing in school, like bullying or gender conformity.
7. Skills are important to have. There are lots of different paths and timetables to mastery, but it will be your job to make sure your children acquire those basic skills that people need to function in our world, like reading, writing, speaking clearly, using technology, and doing math, whether it’s learning them slowly through life or teaching them directly from a textbook or something in between. Inevitably, some kids will have bumps in the road and it will be your job to help smooth those out. This means that you don’t necessarily have to teach everything, but you do need to find ways to help your kids learn, and that includes the subjects that you struggled with as a student. If you have something you’re really struggling to teach, it doesn’t mean you have to give up homeschooling. There are classes and tutors out there, it’s just your job to find and use those resources.
8. It’s normal to have doubts. Parenting is full of them and homeschooling can amplify them. But the only thing to do is try your best and keep moving forward. You will make mistakes, but focus on the big picture. Find some friends to help you along the way and encourage you as you go. Homeschooling can be lonely. Having another homeschool parent who can see your kids and tell you how great they are can be a lifeline.
9. Homeschooling is difficult financially. Some primary homeschool parents manage to work, but you will likely sacrifice a full income or most of one in order to do it. That means living on less. If you can do it, it can be worth it. There are creative solutions to make it work, including working from home, starting a business, or co-oping with other parents. However, in the end, not everyone will be able to financially make homeschooling happen and that’s okay too.
10. There is a saying in homeschool circles: “Homeschooling is a marathon, not a sprint.” Trust that it’s a long journey and that you have time to do it. Trust that small mistakes along the way don’t define that journey, even a bad year probably isn’t as bad as you think. Remember that kids are resilient and most kids can learn with minimal resources and just a lot of your support and love. However, also remember that homeschooling doesn’t have to be forever. You can make a different decision later if you need to do so.
Since the boys were in kindergarten, we’ve done math on the white board or math on scratch paper or math with me scribing or math in workbooks or worktexts or with manipulatives. But when Mushroom reached pre-algebra this year I realized that what we had not done was math neatly laid out in a notebook. It was a mess.
However, I was patient. I gave Mushroom a special notebook for math to keep it separate for the first time from the rest of his written work and made him a special cover for it. Then I tried to instill in him to label the top of every page: the lesson number or “Scratch.” Then we got to simplifying expressions and I explained that you have to copy the expression at the start. He looked nigh on devastated. And the notebook was a mess.
But, hey, look at this! Just a month or so after starting to learn about how to keep his math notebook nice and neat, he did this:
Math is so much about the process. However, there comes a point when the process is hurt by sloppiness. We try really hard to focus on what matters more than how it’s dressed in our schooling. So the quality of the writing matters more than the spelling, that you worked on art for an hour matters more than whether you ended up with a finished product, that you got the right answer matters more than if you forgot to write the units next to it. However, eventually, some of those things matter sometimes. I told Mushroom he had acquired a lifelong skill by being able to keep his math notebook neat and functional.
But I’m also glad I didn’t try to make him acquire this skill earlier. It was pretty painless at this point while it would have been difficult for him earlier. So I’m glad I waited for the right moment to worry a little more about how it looks.
I’m a bit of a math manipulatives nut. The folks over at SecularHomeschool.com asked me to write a post for their new Soup to Nuts discussion group so my post is up today. Here’s the first little bit:
I remember the first time I encountered Cuisenaire rods in a graduate workshop. “Be sure you allow time for kids to play with them,” began the instructor, looking around at a room full of educators turning the tiny blocks into towers and patterns of stripes. As we knocked over towers and tried to pay attention to the instructions on how to use these colorful little things with students, we laughed. Even the adults were drawn to playing with their math.
I’ve since learned that there are a million ways to play with your math and hold it in your hands. It’s not a necessary step for absolutely every student, but for most, it makes math more fun, more tactile, and easier to understand. Math manipulatives can be a lifeline for some math strugglers, a shortcut to understanding for some thinkers, and a means to get to a deeper understanding for others. There are dozens of different products out there for both arithmetic and geometry and even an array of products for algebra. There are also ways to make math hands on by bringing it into the real world in other ways.
In my last post, I talked about what the kids learned and worked on. However, as I wrote, I realized that some of the most important learning was my own, adjusting to having older kids who are nearly in middle school, kids who have a much more tween like attitude.
I think probably the most momentous thing to happen in school this year was Mushroom, in angry tears saying, “I wish you weren’t my teacher!”
He’s changed his mind. He’ll probably change it again at some point. However, it was the first time anything like that ever escaped his lips. In a way it’s sort of funny and sweet. He’s growing up and it’s not as easy to satisfy him. He questions a lot more and is more likely to argue. BalletBoy is working his way toward being a champion arguer. But while I value that all these things are good in one way as the boys gain independence, I can’t deny that they’ve been difficult for all of us to figure out how to navigate.
I got some good advice and have figured out a few things for dealing with this pre-teen stuff. I’m sure I’ll look back on this in a few years and think how naive I was, but here’s what I’ve learned so far.
Mushroom and BalletBoy are probably going to be on the short side. They’re definitely not puny, but they’re among the shorter kids in their age group. However, they’ve shot up in the last year. Enough that Mushroom said to me the other night, “How did I get so big? Just look at me!” They’re clearly working on some more growth soon. Their eating habits have gone back to being more like toddlers too. Some days they pick at everything. But often they devour a whole burrito in one gulp. We had mostly done away with a lot of the casual snacks in our lives over the last few years. We just didn’t need as many as when they were little, but now the snacks are back. I’m learning that they help. Being a grouch? Hey, would you like a granola bar? How about a banana? Yogurt tube?
Appreciate their contradictions.
And I thought nine was full of contradictions. Ten is a whole other level. They are just too big for my lap now, yet they still climb in when they’re sad, sometimes nearly knocking over the chair. Then other times they nearly smack my hand away if I pat their shoulders or back. They insist they can walk a mile away alone one day, then feel incapable and nervous about asking the librarian for a book the next day. They make these great insights during discussions one day, then struggle to remember something incredibly simple the next. Rather than get whiplash, I’m trying to appreciate the little kid moments when they still really need me or play pretend with each other as well as the grown up kid moments when they teach me something I don’t know or want to talk about the meaning of life. Speaking of which…
Engage in deep questions.
I’m learning that this age is completely about big questions. A few years ago, big questions were things about how things work like why is the sky blue. Now the big questions are things like why do bad things happen to good people, is there really a God, and how do we stop wars. Mushroom asked if we could study religions for school, which turned into one of our bigger projects. The logic chapters in Jousting Armadillos also helped fill this need. I’m figuring out how much we need to be engaging with deeper thinking and real questions. Next year, I’m planning to use Philosophy for Kids with them, which I think will help fill this need. I think to keep them engaged in school, learning has to be full of these big questions, even in skill subjects like writing and math.
Give them a break.
And now we come to that contradiction. I think that while we’re doing schoolwork that’s hopefully more and more challenging and thought-provoking, I’m learning that they’re just as likely to get overwhelmed by too much work, either at home or in extracurriculars. Also, many times this year I’ve had the experience of watching one of them do something difficult like a tricky algebra problem or a long dictation, and then turning around and getting something really basic wrong like forgetting how to divide or misspelling “because.” It feels like we’re back to that uneven development that was so characteristic of when they were little. One day they could read the little reader, the next day they genuinely could not. And now I see it again sometimes. I’m learning to cut them some slack.
Look for meaningful experiences.
When Mushroom and BalletBoy were little, a trip to a museum or coloring a picture might be meaningful experiences for learning and life. They were fulfilling things in terms of learning and experiencing the world. Drawing and museum trips may still be useful and part of what we do, but they’re no longer fulfilling in the same way. Just like how the kids are asking deep questions, they’re also really looking for meaningful experiences. I think being in real competitions, such as soccer games or Destination Imagination tournaments, feels like a meaningful experience for them. Performing on stage feels meaningful. Taking risks feels meaningful. Creating their own projects such as the video game machine Mushroom built with his Raspberry Pi or the short story BalletBoy is working on can feel like meaningful work.
They’re clearly seeking out experiences with more depth that feel like they make a difference. I want to begin to tie this in with service learning at least sometimes. And to find ways to let helping around the house, which they do unevenly, be something that feels meaningful. This is definitely something I’m hoping to think more about as they get older. At their age, I began cooking dinner most nights and doing a lot of the household shopping. I know that having what I understood was an important role in the house grounded me in many ways through those years. There’s no way they’re going to have a similar experience, but I also want to look for ways that meaningful experiences and meaningful work can be a part of the picture for them.
We’re actually still “doing fifth grade” so perhaps it’s early for a year in review, but early summer always feels like a reflective time for how school is going. As I wrote this, I realized that there were really two elements to my reflection: what they learned and what I learned about growing kids. Obviously, they’re intertwined, but I put the “school” elements here and I’ll save the tween attitudes for my next post.
This year has been different from the others. We’ve been more engaged with projects and questions. I’ve been more responsive to the kids’ schoolwork requests. I’ve written a good bit here about why we made this shift, but I continue to be glad we focused on exploring lots of content in the early grades and are switching to being more project focused for the middle grades. Some of the projects we did this year included learning about houses, reading steampunk literature and making art, studying world religions, exploring probability, learning about ancient Egypt, doing chemistry experiments, and writing poetry. Not every project we did went perfectly, but overall I feel good about continuing to wing content by letting it arise naturally. I suggest things, they suggest things, questions the kids ask lead to some projects, books or documentaries lead to others. Over the summer, we decided to tackle graphic design and I look forward to seeing what emerges next.
Skill subjects have been a decidedly mixed bag. Math has involved perhaps an insane amount of curriculum hopping. Mushroom is doing well right now alternating daily between Jousting Armadillos and Process Skills in Problem Solving. They’re such radically different resources. He loves Jousting Armadillos and its talkative, do just a few problems then try this very tricky puzzle approach and hates the complex problems in Process Skills. However, I like the interplay between then. BalletBoy started the year using Math in Focus but we ditched it after finishing 5a and switched to MEP, where he is starting on MEP5b. I have been frustrated finding the right level for BalletBoy’s math. He found some elements of Math in Focus far too easy and others far too difficult. MEP has been good for us because it has forced me to really sit and teach him using the lesson plans. Still, I’m not sure what we’re going to do long term. He still makes an egregious amount of careless errors in his math. One problem will be wrong because he accidentally added incorrectly, another because he skipped a step, another because he couldn’t read his own messy writing, another because he misunderstood the question, and finally another because he was off in BalletBoyland and forgot what he was even doing. Getting this kid to focus on math is like pulling teeth sometimes.
On the flip side, BalletBoy does have focus for writing. Brave Writer has continued to serve us well. The boys wrote short stories, poems, reflections, and their first short formal essays, though with lots and lots of help. Both the boys keep slowly improving their dictation mechanics, even if getting them to improve it in their own writing is difficult. Spelling has been a huge trial for Mushroom again this year. He improved so much with All About Spelling for the first two years of using the program, but this year in level 5, his improvement ground to a halt. BalletBoy wrapped up level 6 without too many issues, but I gave up on using it with Mushroom and tried How to Teach Spelling, which has a similar approach but a lot more dictation sentences. I thought it would be good for him to practice. He would improve for a little while then go back to not remembering if a word used “ee” or “ea.” And somehow, in those cases, he always seems to make the wrong choice. Finally, I cried “uncle” on this whole spelling thing. I give up, at least for now. He deserved a break and so did I. His spelling is now extremely easy to decipher 95% of the time and I’ve decided that’s okay for now. We’re committing to doing more dictation to try and work on spelling and mechanics in context.
As always, one of our biggest difficulties was balancing homeschooling with extracurriculars. In particular, our year was taken over with performances. BalletBoy did his first Nutcracker and later got to be an extra in a Kennedy Center ballet, plus he performed with his marimba ensemble. Mushroom did a musical and had a small role in a local community production then went right into a main role in The Importance of Being Earnest. Both boys were in Much Ado About Nothing. When you tossed in soccer and regular co-op and so forth, it was just a lot to do. Finding the balance didn’t always work. Theater hours are really hard on ten year olds. I’m not sure how we can change that next year. We compensate by relaxing school but then working on weekends and over the summer as needed. Like everyone else, I want a more relaxed life, but I also don’t want my kids to have to pass up opportunities they greatly want. It’s a very tricky line to walk.
Just the other day, Mushroom discovered that there was such a thing as a “fifth grade graduation” and demanded that we have one. I asked if a special meal would suffice and he agreed. We have some summer camps and will return in late July for more school, to be finished up by September in time for the fall break.
We’ve had a rough couple of weeks here at the Rowhouse. Everything is in transition. You know how transitions are. Plus we’ve been sick. Is there anything worse than a spring cold? Plus, we’ve been getting ready for the Folger Children’s Shakespeare Festival, which is today. I hope the kids are able to show off their hard work. And directly after the festival, the most epic thing of all… we’re headed to Global Finals for Destination Imagination. As you can imagine, we’ve been antsy and excited.
We have gotten a little school done amidst all that, but writing assignments for Mushroom got suspended as he very single-mindedly decided he absolutely had to make a comic to share with his teammates at Global Finals. There will be one issue every day with a total of four issues. They’re all short, but clearly drawn and very adorable, about an imaginary Destination Imagination team that is also going to Globals. They have some small adventures and in the last issue, they happen to meet our entire team and trade pins with them.
Mushroom often dreams up big projects like this, but he rarely brings them to completion. His anxiety really gets in his way on that very often. He will begin something and then question his ability to really accomplish it the way he wants and give it up rather than keep working. This time he was convinced he had to finish. He let me help him with his spelling. He even insisted on photocopying, collating, and stapling them himself. I’m so glad that he stuck with this project completely on his own with very little help or prompting on my part. He advocated for wanting to work on his own project during all our writing time and I was happy to agree.
One of the things we’ve been aiming for this year has been more kid-driven learning. Up to this point, the kids haven’t really wanted to drive their own learning as much. Even when they’ve had their own projects, they’ve wanted school to stay school. Slowly though, they’re advocating for picking more of their own work, which is exciting to me. I do want to get back to some of the things we had originally intended to do in the last week, but this is much more exciting – a writing and art project he dreamed up himself, carried out without help, accepted some help editing in the last stage, and now has published himself to give out to friends.
So we’re off to Globals! Wish us luck and here’s hoping that Mushroom’s comic series is well received.