I’ll try not to bury the lede on this post. I recently added a section up top in the menu for other DC homeschoolers. There seem to be so many more now than ever before so I gathered some of the resources I’m aware of and listed them there. In particular, we just navigated the process of getting free transit cards for the kids so they can take the bus solo around the city and the city’s explanation for how that works left a little to be desired so I thought a blow by blow meant for kids whose cards wouldn’t be set up for them at their boundary school was perhaps a useful resource.
But beyond that, I thought I’d just take a moment to appreciate how much we love life in the city. I have often shared a story from many years ago when I was on a road trip with the boys. Because we took a side trip to Okefenokee and then took back roads to get to our second family stop in north Georgia, we ended up passing through more small towns than I can count. I was pleased to see how many cute small town downtowns were being revived. “Look!” I kept saying to the kids, “Look what a cute town!” Also, since we were out in the country a lot, I said things like, “Oh, look at the pecan groves! Look at the wildlife! Isn’t it great?” Uh-huh. When we finally pulled into Atlanta and went in search of parking to go to the aquarium, Mushroom said to me, obviously mimicking my words, “Look! Look at all the buildings! Isn’t this cute? Isn’t this great?” His relaxation at finally being somewhere that seemed “normal” was palpable. DC isn’t exactly a city of tall buildings, but the feeling of “urban” was obviously home.
I think there’s an impression of homeschoolers that we’re all homesteading, do it yourself types, making our own soap or canning our own vegetables. Interestingly, I grew up a lot more like that, but I always remember the sense of enriched cultural life when I visited my grandparents’ home in New Orleans and I longed for that when I grew up. Obviously, the small farm types are one model of the homeschool life. However, we urbanites are a growing homeschool group too.
City life makes homeschooling easy in some ways. Museums, buses, millions of classes and opportunities… The number of things at our fingertips at any moment is mind boggling. I love that we have this opportunity to utilize all those resources. And I love the way that my kids feel comfortable with subways and buses and busy street crossings. Sometimes they take for granted a little bit that everyone has access to world class art museums and performances and the option of a million different classes, but mostly they are so confident with the city. It’s beautiful to see. And, of course, if we need a nature outing, there’s always Rock Creek Park.
When I first got into homeschooling and began to join the online community of homeschoolers, I noticed an undercurrent among the people who had been at it for a long time. “Homeschooling is changing,” they said. Sometimes as a complaint, sometimes in awe of the expanding community, sometimes just as an observation. I took their word for it, and I could certainly see that it had changed from the early days, but I didn’t feel it.
Well, I’m still a newbie by many standards, but I can tell you that I feel it now. Homeschooling is changing. Do I sound like a crotchety old timer? I feel a little like one sometimes.
In the last two years, four co-ops have arisen within a few miles from where I live. These aren’t the sort of homegrown co-ops that meet at people’s homes with a couple of families that were around when my kids were younger (like the one we still participate in). They’re incorporated non-profits with rented space and actual budgets or, in the case of a growing Classical Conversations group, part of a large national group. One of them is for kids to do up to four days a week. Another is for three days a week. The largest, which is new this year, is for only one day a week, but is so large that we’ve gotten some pushback from friends about not joining. As one friend put it, “It’s like everyone you’ve ever met all at one co-op.” Well, not quite, but it does seem that way sometimes.
Did I mention that I feel like an old fuddy duddy? I’m glad these options are suddenly out there and growing. None of them were around when my kids were starting out, which is really a testament to how quickly things are changing and I suspect they’re changing nationwide. But I’m also glad that charter schools in my city are growing and improving. I’m glad that online learning is growing and becoming a viable option for more families. I’m glad that the public schools in my city are improving. I’m just happy that more families, at least in my little corner of the world, have more options than ever before, many of which break the mold of sitting in a classroom all day. However, that doesn’t mean I’m jumping on the bandwagon for any of those things. Especially in the case of interesting new private school models and co-ops that rent their own spaces, these options are expensive. To join that co-op would run us several hundred dollars, not to mention a lot of free work hours from me teaching.
For a lot of the new homeschoolers I’ve met recently, finding a community that meets several days a week in a formal setting is the ideal of homeschooling. I don’t disagree that it can work for some people, but it’s definitely not my ideal.
My ideal is following my kids’ interests and needs on an individual basis. My ideal is having a schedule that’s open and flexible enough to allow us to drop everything to go apple picking or fossil hunting or to see friends unexpectedly. My ideal is learning without an institution. We don’t always achieve those ideals, but none of them are served by being in a group several days a week. That, to me, sounds like school by another name. Potentially a better model of school, but still school.
There is something really inspiring about the way in which homeschoolers are creating these learning communities. Some of them are especially great for parents who work full or part time but still want to find a way to homeschool. However, one of the things I want new homeschoolers to know is that you can do this on your own too. You can educate your kids without a co-op if you want to. You can educate your kids without a curriculum too. I know it sounds crazy, but there’s a certain joy to reinventing the wheel for your kids and learning how to teach them by simply teaching them. Not only that, but there are a million models for making friendships and community in homeschooling. One way is by creating something that requires administrators and accountants, but another is by creating something small. We have gotten so much joy and love out of a free, informal co-op that is run as much by the kids as the adults. We have also gotten more social skills and teamwork skills from doing Destination Imagination than I think could be gotten in nearly any classroom.
So we’re sticking with our group of just a few kids and our activities that we already have. Maybe we’ll re-evaluate down the road, and see if I’m willing to give up a few more days of home school in favor of community school.
I guess it’s just free downloads month at the Rowhouse. Last week, I put up my modernized version of Problems Without Figures, a century-old text helping students focus on the procedures and meaning behind the math, and today I have something to share that was written by the Husband.
This fall, my husband, Peter, has started a mini-unit on elections for Mushroom and BalletBoy. He decided quickly that none of the resources out there would be up to snuff for him. He wanted to create his own. Peter is a recovering political junkie. The cover of the ebook is actually memorabilia from his personal collection of political bumper stickers and pins. He’s worked in various ways in politics and political journalism for a long time. So, of course, he felt confident to just write an authoritative guide off the top of his head, just like he can name your congressman off the top of his head (we may not get to have one, but he can name yours!) and probably your governor too.
He was very sweet as he worked on this and very excited to create and share it with others. It’s truly an amazing little text that is both detailed and easy to understand. He wrote it with Mushroom and BalletBoy in mind, but I suspect it would be useful for many kids in elementary and middle school.
Click on the image above to get it. The book is written to be read right now. Many of the examples and explanations deal specifically with the 2016 presidential race. At the end of most sections, there are questions to ponder in green text. At the end, there are a few web links and other resources. While obviously we have our own political views, the viewpoint is very neutral. Peter has been all over the political spectrum in his life so he knows how different sides think. This book is not about political issues so much as the process of becoming president. Why do people choose to run? Why do we focus on Iowa and New Hampshire? How do polls work? What does it take to win? Where do third parties stand? How did our system end up working this way? I think both liberal and conservative parents will find this guide completely usable.
I don’t talk much about Peter on this blog, but I’ll take this opportunity to extol his virtues. Long before we had kids, I told Peter we would be homeschooling them and he has been a complete supporter from the get go. He never questions that we’re doing a great job for our kids. When I was still teaching and the kids were very little, he was the first one to find us homeschool friends. While I do suffer occasionally from being the “default parent,” Peter is a very hands on father. He changed at least as many diapers as me and has dealt with at least as many tantrums and bedtimes and illnesses. He talks to the kids, plays games with them, takes them out to the park in the evening and on field trips, and reads to them at bedtime. Basically, I think he’s a superdad.
In my last post, I linked to a really cool vintage resource called Problems Without Figures. As I pointed out, I decided to update it so I could use it with my kids more easily. I didn’t update the whole work because it was very long. I did the first 150 problems, which is a little less than half, but I thought I’d share my update here with you. It’s free to download. For more about the types of problems, the reasons to use a book like this, and how to use the book, have a look at my previous post. Below, I’m going to talk a little more about the changes I made to the book and why. I can’t promise that every problem in here is perfect. I’m pretty sure I thought through everything, but I didn’t have a professional editor. Feel free to send me any corrections and do tweak any problems to make them make more sense for your kids if needed. Note that the nature of these problems is to include superfluous information, have answers that are impossible to get without more information, have multiple potential solutions or paths to a solution, and to have “trick” problems where the answer is much simpler than the problem implies. None of those things are necessarily errors. Again, see my previous post for more about these problems.
I changed the problems in a couple of ways. A large number I left the same or simply updated a word or two to be less old fashioned (such as “shall”), including some of the old fashioned problems about farms and orchards and the like, simply because it’s nice to have different perspectives occasionally. I updated the language in a few problems. For example, instead of buying marbles and penny candy, kids are buying Legos and other contemporary items. For others, I changed the situation or the measuring units for a problem to be more up to date but tried to keep the spirit of the question. However, for several problems, I couldn’t come up with a modern equivalent so I completely rewrote the problem to be more contemporary.
Doing this was an interesting process for me. It let me think about how math has changed over time. Much of the original book was out of date because of the situations it portrayed. It assumed the readers were familiar with agriculture and farm animals. However, much of what has changed is the math. There were several measurement units that are simply not used anymore, such as the rod as a measurement of length. Other measurement units are in use today and students may have a general sense of what a bushel or an acre is, but they are less a part of everyday life. In general, while measurement math is still a key component of everyday math and we have the complexity in the US of having to go between customary and metric measurements, this book drove home for me how it was an even bigger share of the everyday math people used a century ago. For one thing, we tend to deal with standardized sizes of things much more often. Doors, windows, pieces of paper, tablecloths, picture frames, etc. are all standardized. If we want to know how much land we own, we look it up instead of measuring. If we build something, we tend to follow preset directions instead of making them up ourselves with all the accompanying measurement challenges.
On the other hand, there are types of math that were never or almost never covered in the original book. For example, there were only a couple of problems involving averages. There were no problems involving estimation. There were no problems involving statistics or ratios. Very few problems involved fractions or percents, which surprised me. There were no problems involving permutations or combinations.
Life today is more complex with more choices. We tend to need to know more about combinations and permutations just to order off a menu or decide how to buy something or what to wear. We have to evaluate more complex data and statistics to understand a news article or a scientific claim on the internet. We’re used to bigger numbers. None of the numbers in the original book were very big. These days we’re used to hearing about numbers in the millions and billions. Our tax code and economy are much more complex, meaning that percentages come into play a lot more often. When the original book was written, people lived with a cash economy and prices were more straightforward. It’s different now.
When I tossed out those few problems from the original, I tried to replace them with ones that asked kids about making the sort of decisions that we often have to make using math these days. So there are problems about how to make basketball matchups, how to choose which toilet paper to buy, how to know if a statistic is reasonable, and other more modern conundrums than how many acres in your fields or how many fence posts you need.
BalletBoy has always gravitated toward just getting his math done. Ideally, he likes to have a page of all the same sort of problem, let me remind him how to do them, and then just do them all. However, as he’s gotten older, this has meant a struggle for him to some extent. As the math gets more complex, with more to remember, not having a strong foundation in the whys of math has led to more and more difficulties for him. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you may note that he’s jumped around programs in the last year as a result. I’ve been trying to honor the fact that he’s pretty good at getting the algorithms memorized while still helping him understand the whys. Finding the right approach hasn’t been easy. Most things have been too easy or too hard.
Recently, the author of the excellent Let’s Play Math blog pointed me to the vintage book Problems Without Figures, which you can find as a pdf here. I immediately fell in love a little bit. Many of them have numbers, but there’s usually missing information so they can’t be “solved.” Instead, the question is focused on the process. If given this and this, can you find that? How would you do it? What other information might you need? Many of the problems can’t be solved unless you know more information. Others are easy, but they require a lot of steps. A ton of them require that you move between different measuring units. Many of them are filled with superfluous information.
There are also several trick problems. My favorite, by far, is the one that asks how you can find how old a coin dated 56 B.C. is. Obviously, a coin couldn’t be dated that (think about it…). The author of the book suggests that these should be sprung on students. I’ve already given the kids a few of these but warned them to look out for them. They were delighted to discover them and felt very clever doing so. I think it’s really good for kids to realize that the answer isn’t always straightforward, that it might be easier or harder than they anticipate, or that they might need different information than what you’re given or expect to need.
In general, I like the focus of having kids doing math that’s not about getting “the answer.” It changes the focus of math and makes it feel more approachable for BalletBoy. It helps kids with their writing as well. Mushroom has been using the Arbor School algebra series, which requires a lot of writing. I wish we had been doing these for a little while in preparation because they really focus a student on writing out a clear, step by step set of instructions for solving a problem. However, the small nature of the problems makes it feel like a doable task. Mushroom has struggled with the writing in the Arbor School series because it asks that he summarize everything he learned and give his own examples. This is such a small chunk and so specific that it builds good logical writing and thinking skills. Basically, it’s a great thing for kids to do for math, writing, logic, and thinking skills. Explaining how to solve a problem is just good across the board.
You may notice that many of the problems in the book are outdated. In order to easily use it with my boys, I updated the language for us. My next post is about that process and I’ll link to the updated version if you’d like to use it.
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.