Posts tagged ‘education’

September 1, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Robotics

Over this past year, my eight-year-old (now nine-year-old!) became increasingly interested in robotics. The first robot he learned about was Jibo because my husband was watching videos about this little gadget that might someday be a standard household item. My husband learned about it through all the tech sites and podcasts he listens to, and he showed it to us because he thought it was cool.

Well, my son had never seen a robot before and suddenly he wanted to know more.

We began to watch YouTube videos about all kinds of robots that have been invented and also those that are still being developed. I found it fascinating too. (Did you know there is a hotel in Japan being run entirely by robots?)

My son was already an avid Lego fan. He has sat for six hours at a stretch putting together what looks like to me a complicated and tedious Lego kit. He has been building toys and other cardboard creations for a very long time, and he does indeed seem to have an “engineer’s mind.” (So unlike his mom and dad!) We wanted to support our son’s interest in robotics, so my husband did some research about robotics kits, and we learned about the Mindstorm EV3 kit and some others. But it was expensive, and we weren’t sure just how interested our son was in robotics yet.

Technically, this was my son’s first robot.

To help gauge our son’s interest, we took him to the 2014 Maker Faire in Decatur, GA last October. We knew he’d get to see some robots up close and maybe play with them too. Indeed, there were lots of robots at the fair, and my son was able to try some out. He had a blast.

While we were at the fair, my husband and I took the opportunity to ask some Georgia Tech students what they recommended for young kids interested in robotics. They mentioned the Lego robotics kits and one other one. Since our son was already familiar with Legos, the Mindstorm kit became a good choice for us. Indeed, many of the robots at the fair were made with Legos!

We also learned about hacker spaces and maker groups while we were at the fair and that there are a couple of these places located near us. This is not something we have tried out yet, but it may be another possibility to try someday.

It was around this time that we discovered the series Making Stuff by Nova and hosted by David Pogue. There are four episodes, and we all enjoyed them, but they enamored my eight-year-old, and he has watched them all multiple times. The episode Making Stuff Wilder is his favorite because it’s about bioengineering. I can see where my son’s love of nature and animals crosses with his love of robotics in this field. The first time we watched it, while they were explaining some robot inspired by nature, my son leaned forward in his seat, pointed at the T.V. and said loudly, “I WANT TO DO THAT!”

Ever since, he has said he wants to be an engineer. He also said once that he doesn’t think he wants to be just an engineer. We have let him know that many bio-engineers spend most of their day inside a building with no windows. It’s something to consider. But engineering is a huge field with many possibilities, and as he develops this and other skills, such as pottery and piano, you never know where his interests will intersect or compliment each other. So we feel it’s our duty to support this interest in whatever way we can for however long it lasts.

We wanted to get him the Mindstorm EV3 for Christmas, but since it was an expensive gift, we asked my in-laws and mother, if they might want to contribute instead of giving him a toy. They did. (Thank you!!!) I think it was certainly a gift that will have a longer shelf life than anything else we could have given him. He has been extremely responsible with the robot, taking care to keep the pieces separate from his other Lego kits, and he was also okay with receiving very little else that holiday.

Though I was worried he might lose interest in it over time, he hasn’t. Over the course of the year, he has built every robot whose instructions came with the software, and he has built a few others developed by Lego fans. He has watched YouTube videos to learn about the programming, and he has experimented with making his own programming for the robots. It’s not something he works on everyday or even every week, but he always goes back to it, and we’ve amassed quite a nice collection of photographs of his work.

My son’s latest robot plays a “Which tire is the ball under?” game with you.

It got to a point when I felt he needed more instruction, and we weren’t finding easy tutorials online anymore. I wanted to get him into a robotics class. Well, I searched in vain for weeks, and I couldn’t find anything closer than Atlanta, which is a bit too far for us to travel for a class. Finally one day my husband sat with me one afternoon and we did all kinds of Google searches. That’s when we found Engineering for Kids of Northeast Georgia. At that time, they didn’t have a robotics class, but we decided their STEM Club would be a good a match for our son, and later I was happy to find out they were doing a robotics summer camp (close to us!). So my son recently attended that, and he was happy to have one of his friends in the camp with him too.

So this is where we are so far with his love of robotics. He just turned nine-years-old, and his interest is still strong and doesn’t seem to be going away. We’ll continue to support it any way we can, and I’ll be sure to let you know how it’s going too.

August 27, 2015

Introducing History for Homeschoolers

{Free Online History Classes}

george & shelli-1

George and me

Note: A similar version of this column was published in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, August 26, 2016.

Some of you know that my husband is a historian and a history professor. He has been teaching history at the college level for over eighteen years. At first, he was very skeptical about online courses, but his fascination with using technology in education slowly led him in that direction.

For three years he taught both online and face-to-face classes, and for one and a half years, he taught hybrid courses. Those are classes that meet both face-to-face and online. After this, he decided to take the plunge and teach only online. At first he wasn’t sure how he would feel about teaching online full-time, but now that he’s been doing it for over three years, we both realize it was a great move, and he doesn’t regret working from home.

Another benefit is that it’s given him time to develop some good online course material that he can use over and over in his classes. He continues to work on this and make it better. His students seem to like his audio lectures too. Thinking back to my college days, I would have appreciated having a recording of my professor’s lecture so that I could listen and stop it to take notes!

I’ve been telling my husband for a few years that he should write a history book for homeschoolers or offer some kind of resource with his knowledge. There are some popular history curriculums for homeschoolers, but none of them are updated with new research, and all of them have their fair share of negative criticism. There is also a lack of good material for the high school level. This isn’t to say that what is available isn’t worthy at all, but I felt my husband could offer another option.

Finally, with my help, he is putting his audio lectures online for free for anyone who wants to brush up on their history. At present historyforhomeschoolers.com has all his U.S. history audio lectures and several of his world history lectures. He will be adding more world history over the next few months, and after all the lectures are available, he will work on adding key words, links to relevant videos and other reputable resources on the web. The idea is to give parents or anyone who is interested in history a starting point in their journey to explore the past.

What a lot of people do not realize is that there is a difference between writers who write about history, but they are not trained historians and then those who are trained historians and write about history. Sometimes journalists or other writers can actually be better writers, bringing history alive for folks like me who don’t have a natural enthusiasm for the subject. This is good and has its place. But when it comes to choosing reliable sources for the best researched and least biased history (of course, all history texts have some bias), you want to turn to the people who have dedicated their lives to studying the subject.

My husband thinks that any book that sparks curiosity in children and gets them asking questions and wanting to learn more has served its purpose. He hopes that his site can offer another step forward for middle or high school students and adults who want to learn more, and as a homeschooling mom, I’m grateful to have his discerning eye when it comes to choosing the right resources – whether online or otherwise – to teach myself and kids about history. This is something I’m going to keep pestering him to work on because I need it myself, and I know if I can use it, other parents will appreciate it too.

Please take a look at historyforhomeschoolers.com, and I hope you find it useful! We welcome any feedback as we add to the site and try to make it the best it can be. And, yes, it will remain free and ad-free.

August 13, 2015

Day Trip to Greenville’s Children’s Museum

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, August 12, 2015.

We are having a short “staycation” of sorts while my husband has some time off from work. In order to make the best of it, we thought we’d explore some places we have never been to before, and since it’s too hot to do anything outside, we searched for indoor locations that might be fun. The first place we headed to was Greenville, South Carolina’s Children’s Museum of the Upstate. The drive took about three hours, but it was beautiful, and we were able to see various small towns along the way, including the quaint Anderson, SC.

Once we got to the Children’s Museum of the Upstate in Greenville, my boys had a blast. The museum is 80,000 square feet with three floors and 18 interactive exhibits. The first one I found that I liked was the air tunnel. After coming in from the heat, that felt good! But my five-year-old’s favorite was called “3-2-1 Blast Off,” which consisted of a series of tubes with air blowing through them, and when he put a ball into it, he could watch the ball whoosh through all the tubes and then come back out through another tube. We had to visit that one twice. He also loved climbing on the multi-story climbing structure in the middle of the building, and he did that all by himself since his brother wasn’t interested.

My eight-year-old says he liked the race car driving simulator and the Reedy River Bend – the water exhibit – the best. He liked being able to move some pipes around in the water exhibit so that he could manipulate where the water flowed. My five-year-old loved putting his hands in the water fountains and waterfalls, turning wheels and even going under the water and coming up inside a big, plastic bubble.

Anyone from my generation could probably appreciate the gigantic Lite-Brite, which they called Light Waves Ahead. Remember that toy where you could make pictures by placing different colored pegs on a light board? My five-year-old sorted all the pegs into different colors and made a pretty cool hexagon.

My boys also enjoyed the music room, which was called Garage Rock. They were able to play music on instruments made out of tools, plastic pipe, pinball machines and other fun materials. We spent so long in our favorite places that we didn’t even try out all the exhibits, such as the construction zone, the grocery store, hospital, or the T.V. studio where children can produce their own show from beginning to end and then watch it.

What we didn’t know when we ventured to Greenville was how beautiful that city is or that it’s such a mecca for the arts. The Children’s Museum is located on the Heritage Green, which also boasts the Greenville County Library, Museum of Art, Little Theatre, Museum and Gallery at Bob Jones University, and the Upcountry History Museum. You can learn more about each of these at http://www.heritagegreen.org

Since the Greenville County Museum of Art was right next to the Children’s Museum, and the admission was free, we popped in there for an hour before it closed. It has the largest collection of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings in the country, and my husband and I loved his work. The boys found paintings they enjoyed too, as well as a stunning sculpture of two hawks fighting over their prey in mid-air. It was so life-like we first thought the birds were real ones that had been stuffed.

Downtown Greenville was big, but not so big that it didn’t have that small-town charm. It was full of restaurants, shops, art galleries, and theatres. There are also attractions for those who love sports and the outdoors. We are planning to go back to Greenville sometime and explore this lovely city further.

Admission to the Children’s museum was $10 for adults and $9 for children ages 1 – 15. The website is http://www.tcmupstate.org.

July 27, 2015

Our Summer Homeschooling Plans

My son’s carnivorous plants are thriving, and one plan we have for this summer is to give them a bigger pot!

Someone once told me that summer has a mind of its own, and I believe that. For the past few summers, I’ve learned to go with the flow, and I know that my plans might not come to fruition. That’s happened this year too, but I’m pretty happy about what we’ve accomplished anyway.

I always wonder if we should do some formal lessons in the summer or just have unlimited free time. The thing about not having any schedule is that I’m afraid I might disconnect from my kids, concentrating on projects around the house and work that I’ve been neglecting for a long time. I’ve also noticed that having a little structure just feels right for us. If I keep the boys busy in the morning, they are less likely to mope around and say they are bored in the afternoon when I need them to play by themselves. Or, if I decide to let them have free play time in the morning, one of them might come ask me to do something with them anyway. So, if I feel like I’ve planned to spend the time with them, I don’t get as discombobulated, wondering when to say yes and when to say no. I hope that makes sense!

Of course, we do need days when there is nothing on the schedule, and the boys can do anything they want. We do that plenty of days all year round, so I’m not too worried about making them do too much. Besides, what I consider schoolwork for the boys is not torture, and sometimes, it’s exactly what they want to do. It just helps me to have a plan so I can make sure we’re accomplishing our goals.

Here was my loose idea of what we could work on this summer. Keep in mind that this isn’t a daily list. Some of these items we may do everyday, but others we may only do weekly or even just a day or two in the summer.

  • Math — I’m going to be making math more a priority for my eight-year-old from here on out because he’s pretty much got the reading thing.
  • Readalouds
  • The boy’s projects
  • News and current events
  • Art
  • Catch up on Nature Journals
  • Work on our junior ranger badges
  • Memorize a poem
  • Work on our history timeline
  • Summer camps

So how’s that going? Here you go:

Math — Yes, we’ve worked on math. But I was planning to do more readalouds with math books, and that didn’t happen because it’s hard to get the books from the library! (Other people want the same books I do. Grrr.) However, we did read The History of Counting, and I signed my eight-year-old up for Splash Math’s summer program. I don’t actually recommend that program — I thought it was going to be something else, but it’s just a review. If you need a review, and your kid likes working on the computer, then it might be a good fit. It has fun graphics. I signed up early, so it wasn’t expensive, but as it gets harder, my son really hates it, and it doesn’t offer any explanation of how to do the problems (it only tells you the right answer, if you get it wrong), so I’m considering letting him stop.

Readalouds — Like I said, I was hoping all of our readalouds would be about math, but that didn’t happen. So we’re continuing on in The Complete Tales & Poems of Winnie-the-Pooh, which was one of our best library book sale finds ever. (We got it for $2!) The boys like Winnie much better than the math books anyway. (We also read books of my sons’ choice, usually at bedtime, but I’m not counting that here because it’s not part of my formal homeschool plan.)

The boy’s projects — I started a project calendar, and I’ve been trying to make myself available when the boys might want to make or do something time-intensive, and that is working out fairly well. (I’ll write about this in more detail at some point.) However, their projects these days are less about making something and more about doing: My eight-year-old started taking piano lessons this summer, and he’s practicing at home on his own. The five-year-old is interested in birds, and he mostly wants to look at our bird app, which I do with him at night before bed. I listed all of my boys’ current projects in The Summer Rundown.

News and current events — For a while, I was wondering how to introduce my son to news and current events in a way that would engage him. home/school/life magazine has a great list of resources on its blog, which came from the Summer 2014 issue, but my son seemed too young for most of those. Then I found News-O-Matic, which is an app. My son didn’t like it at first, but I incorporated it into our lessons, and now he voluntarily checks it everyday! I can’t recommend it enough.

Art — Most Fridays (but not all), I have kept up with our art lessons, and I even incorporated some math! One Friday I surprised the boys by turning Art Friday into a field trip to the Georgia Museum of Art.

Catch up on Nature Journals — My eight-year-old used to enjoy this more, but it may be coming to a close. The day we were working on this, my son lost interest pretty fast, so I probably won’t make him continue. After all, we started it when he was four, maybe?!

Work on junior ranger badges — I thought we might make a point to go on some family outings to places that we need to go to make progress on getting the next badges this summer, but with the intense heat and the summer camps keeping us busy, we’re not going to make much headway this summer. That’s okay because it’s just an ongoing project that we do whenever we can. We did, however, earn some Civil War badges this summer. They didn’t require a lot of work, and it was fun too.

Memorize a poem — This is something I’d like to start incorporating into our homeschool on a seasonal basis, but so far, I am lousy at making time for it. The boys and I memorized poems in the spring, but I never did anything with it. I should have videotaped them because they’ve probably forgotten it by now!

Work on our history timeline — I finished making two big timelines this spring, and I need to get more intentional about adding what we learn about history to them. Really, it’s just about setting aside a day to work on this because we have some things in mind to add to it! I think we’ll get to this soon.

Summer CampsTruly, the summer is about summer camps. It’s my number one priority for many reasons, and anything else we can get done is just icing on the cake. I wrote about the camps my sons took in my upcoming column, which will be published soon, and I’ll post it here too.

As you can see, we haven’t been able to do everything. But with lots of play time, gardening, bird-watching, sketching, and other odds and ends, we have had quite a full summer! Soon, I’m going to do an end-of-the-year celebration and let my sons know that they are moving on to 3rd grade and Kindergarten. I have been busy planning some birthday celebrations and next year’s curriculum too….I’ll be sure to update you about that as it happens.

Do you homeschool year-round? What are your favorite summer activities?

July 6, 2015

Birds

mama feeding chicks 6.21.15-1

Note: This column appeared in the Barrow Journal on July 1, 2015.

I may call this the spring and summer of birds. My family and I have always enjoyed watching the songbirds in our yard. We love the cardinals, bluebirds, tufted titmice, hummingbirds and chickadees. Every time my boys see a flash of red out the window, they call out, “There’s a male cardinal!”

But this year, birds have become more of a focus, and though I wish I could take credit for it, it has all happened by chance. First, we were lucky that a family of Carolina wrens took up residence in a birdhouse we keep on our back deck. This birdhouse has been sitting empty for several years, and we wondered if it were in a bad spot, or maybe it was too close to the other birdhouse we keep on our front porch. We’ve had bluebirds nest in it consistently, and we know they don’t like to compete with other bluebird families for food.

Though we’ve enjoyed watching the bluebirds on our front porch feeding their babies in the past years, and we could always hear the little chicks screaming for food, we had never before seen the baby birds fledge. This year, to the squeals of delight by my sons, we saw not only a baby bluebird sitting on our front porch rail, we also looked out the window the exact moment when a Carolina wren flew from its birdhouse into the big wide world for the first time.

After all this excitement was over, my eldest son noticed a cardinal building a nest in a bush right outside our living room window. She placed it where we could see it perfectly, and we got very excited.

It took Mama Cardinal about a day to build her nest, and two days later, we could tell there were at least two eggs in it. After that, Mama consistently sat on the nest most of the day, though she seemed to leave for a while in the evenings, probably to find food. She protected the nest through some rough storms too.

About twelve days later, we felt the chicks would hatch soon. We began to see Papa Cardinal hanging out in the trees nearby. Sure enough, they hatched two days later, and then we had the pleasure of watching both Mama and Papa feed the two little chicks, though not quite as frequently as the bluebirds seem to feed their chicks.

Little by little, they grew until we could see they were now looking back at us through the window, and one night, they jumped from the nest into the branches of the bush. There was no sign of them in the morning, so we hope they made it to the safety of the nearby woods.

Not surprisingly, birds have been a theme in my sons’ interests lately. Even before these birds began nesting in our yard, my five-year-old has had a fascination with feathers, and most evenings after dinner, he likes to take a walk with me so that he can look for feathers – you’d be surprised at how many you can find, if you just start looking.

The boys have always loved looking at the bird field guide app, especially when they see an interesting bird they want to identify, and someone gave us The Bird Songs Anthology by Les Beletsky, which features 200 birds and the sounds they make. I have discovered that my eight-year-old has an uncanny memory for bird songs, and whenever we’re outside, he’ll say, “That’s the tufted titmouse!” or “That’s a cardinal!” My ears could never sort and remember all those bird songs, but I have always suspected my son is very auditory, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.

The birds have given my family a show this year, so I think I’ll always remember this as the year of the birds. Or maybe it’s the beginning of many years of learning about birds. I can’t wait to find out.

Eventually I’m going to post more photos of the cardinal family, but until I have time for that, you can see a bunch of them on the home/school/life Facebook page.

June 22, 2015

Engineering for Kids

Note: This column appeared in the Barrow Journal on June 17, 2015. 

It’s no secret that the United States has been pushing more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in education. Though I’m not sure I agree with all the motives for that, and I certainly don’t want to see cuts in the arts due to it, I’m glad there are more opportunities for kids to learn and explore these areas. Many kids thrive with hands-on learning, so there should be more of that.

My eight-year-old is one of those kids who seems to be on a track for a STEM career. Sure, he could change, but when I was his age, I was already writing poetry. (He’s so not me. Thank goodness.) He likes to build things, and he loves science. He’s crazy about Legos and Minecraft. He enjoys art and has even written stories, but the passion isn’t there. His preferred craft is pottery, which, of course, has a lot to do with using one’s hands and building too.

We have done everything we can to support his interests despite the fact that my husband and I come from a business and liberal arts background. (It’s been a steep learning curve for us.) Last year I looked in vain for classes within driving distance to support my son’s love of robotics. He’s learned a lot at home, but there’s only so much more we can do here.

CO2 powered dragster races

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

 click above image to go to video

For these reasons, I jumped for joy when I found Engineering for Kids of Northeast Georgia, a franchise that is serving Barrow, Dawsonville, Forsyth, Gwinnett, Hall and Jackson counties. Engineering for Kids provides programming for kids ages 4 to 14 that introduces STEM education. They go into the schools, offer after-school programs, homeschool programs, camps, birthday parties, you name it.

This past spring, I enrolled my son in their STEM Club Saturdays that was being held once a month next door to INK Musuem in Gainesville. He had a great time making a CO2 powered dragster, a model of a roller coaster, and a bottle rocket.

Building a scale model of a roller coaster and learning about kinetic and potential energy in the process.

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bottle rocket. click above image to see video.

The owner of the franchise, Jeffrey Butler, told me that he was working on securing a facility in Barrow County for his summer camps, and he did. They will be at the Sims Academy of Innovation & Technology this July.

They will have a “Pirate Academy” and “Junior Robotics: Adventure Stories” for ages PreK-2nd grades. At the “Apprentice/Master” Level (3rd-8th grade), they are offering an “Out of This World Space Camp” and a “Robotics: Mission to Mars” camp. They offer discounts, if your child wants to stay for a full day and participate in both camps.

Butler says they plan to offer a year-round Engineering for Kids Club in Winder in the fall. He said they started this last year at the Lanier Technical College Winder-Barrow campus. They will release their 2015/16 schedule of classes in the summer, and they plan to do an Open House/Customer Appreciation event at their Gainesville campus in early August.

If you’d like to learn more about Engineering for Kids, go to engineeringforkids.com. For the Northeast Georgia home, see https://engineeringforkids.com/location/northeastga/home

April 27, 2015

Testing

Note: This column appeared in the April 22, 2015 edition of the Barrow Journal.

Next year, my son will be in the third grade, and as is required by the state of Georgia for homeschoolers, he will need to be tested at the end of that year in his academic studies. I have to use a nationally standardized test, but I can administer it in my home, and we keep the results for our own files. This is fine with me. It’ll be good to see where my son is at and what areas he may need help in.

Earlier this year I decided to buy a 2nd grade test prep book – not so much to prepare my son for what he needs to know on the test but to teach him how to take a test. I didn’t want to make him sit down and face those test sheets and “fill in the bubble” scantron without ever seeing them before. Our practice test workbook also comes with some test-taking tips, and those have been helpful too.

As I go through the book with my son, I’m grateful to see how easily he reads the questions and answers the questions. It certainly gives me peace of mind that he’s doing fine. But I’m glad that this is just a small piece of our day too. Although I go over the few things he doesn’t know, he is not learning much by practicing test taking.

I am also looking at the comprehensive tests – the reading section alone is almost fifteen pages long – and thinking about how much time my son will have to sit in one place to complete that. Even if I read the parts that are “listening,” it will be hard for him to sit still and concentrate for that long. It’s not that he can’t sit still – he can spend eight hours putting together complicated Lego kits, but reading short passages or “stories” he is not interested in is not going to reveal his ability to sit and concentrate. But maybe by the end of next year, it will be easier for him.

I do not let my kids do anything they want. I do formal lessons with them, but I also follow their interests and figure out what works for them because that’s the best way to learn. Every child should have an education tailored to his or her needs and interests. When it comes to doing the things they don’t want to do, I believe in going slow, letting maturity and a little practice ease them into doing the harder stuff like sitting still for long periods of time to take a test.

Because of this, I am very skeptical about standardized testing for young kids. I don’t see how those tests given in the public schools can measure a child’s true abilities or knowledge. I have seen my own son miss questions that he could have easily gotten correct only because he was getting tired. I was pushing him too hard. Luckily for us, I can slow down when I realize I’m going too fast for my son, but school kids are being pushed to learn things before they are ready for it just to pass tests.

Young children should not be required to do things they are not yet developmentally ready for. I have read about several studies saying that children learn best through play. It improves their executive function, which is a fancy term for certain cognitive processes such as an ability to work independently. The latest article I read was in the Washington Post titled, “Report debunks ‘earlier is better’ academic instruction for young children.” It says that the best early preschool programs “focus on social, emotional and intellectual goals rather than narrow academic goals.”

Some children learn how to read early. Others aren’t ready until seven or eight. Some children can sit still for long periods; others (often the boys) cannot. Some children need to learn through movement; others learn better by listening or seeing. When I was young I had to keep moving forward in math even when I didn’t get it. I did well enough to pass, but I’ve always dubbed myself as “bad at math.” What if someone had just taught it to me differently? And waited until I got a concept before moving on, even if that meant waiting a year?

I’m not the only one who feels this way. I am seeing complaints by teachers, who are not getting a chance to truly teach because of the push to “teach to the test.” There was that Ohio special education teacher who gave a shocking resignation right after winning a big teaching award. She was reported to have said, “I can’t do it anymore, not in this ‘drill ‘em and kill ‘em’ atmosphere. I don’t think anyone understands that in this environment, if your child cannot quickly grasp material, study like a robot and pass all of these tests, they will not survive.”

Recently I interviewed a former teacher from Massachusetts for home / school / life magazine. (Spring 2015 issue.) She left the profession to homeschool her daughters, and when I asked her why she decided to homeschool, she said, “From being an education major (I graduated in 1999) to leaving the profession to have my daughter (in July 2006), so much had changed. The focus had shifted from teachable moments to teaching to the test (in a big, big way). As an educator my philosophy of education did not jive with what was taking place in our country’s schools, and I knew that it would be hypocritical for the girls to be part of a system that I did not agree with.”

This makes me understand why many parents are opting out of traditional school right now. There are about 2.2 million homeschooled students in the United States, and it is estimated that homeschooling is growing from 2-8% per year. That may not sound like much in the big scheme of things, but many parents ask me about homeschooling and tell me they are considering it among other options. When you see your child begin to hate learning, it is something to consider. Education should be about exploration and inquiry. Not cramming for tests.

March 24, 2015

Why We Homeschool

Note: This column appeared in the Barrow Journal on March 11, 2015.

Over five years ago, I wrote a column about why we were thinking about homeschooling our children. My eldest son was not even school age at the time. It’s hard to believe how fast the time has gone between then and now. We have officially been homeschooling our eldest son for two and a half years, and though we don’t have to file a declaration of intent to homeschool for our youngest until he turns six, he’s been homeschooled right along with his brother.

My initial reasons for wanting to homeschool have not changed much. I wanted to allow my boys to learn at their own pace while also having plenty of time to still be children. That is, I wanted them to play, move, and use their imaginations frequently everyday. I wanted our time to be used wisely. I knew I could work with my children on their academic lessons in a much shorter amount of time than a teacher could with a classroom of 20 or so students. Then my boys could play and delve into the things that interested them and fueled their desire to learn. I strongly believed that what young children need to learn is not easily measured by tests, and I still believe that.

Now that we have been homeschooling for a while, I can say more clearly why we want to continue down this path, though it has its challenges. Now that my boys are growing and showing their unique personalities, it’s clear that homeschooling fits them, which isn’t the case for all children. When my eight-year-old was four, he blossomed in some classes at the Sandy Creek Nature Center, and ever since then, he’s learned more about nature, animals, and science than I learned in the 35 years I lived before he was born. By setting up an environment at home where we have plenty of supplies for making things, and showing him how to use the supplies, he’s gotten used to being a doer and builder too.

He still needs his parents to do a lot of things for him, but when it comes to figuring out how he is going to spend his free time, he’s got that all sorted out. It’s not uncommon for him to say things like, “I have an idea,” “I thought of something I want to make,” “I have a science experiment I want to do,” or “Can you write down how to spell (for example) mata mata turtle so that I can look it up on the computer?” These statements tell me he’s getting what I had hoped he would out of homeschooling. He is learning how to learn, and not only that, he doesn’t consider it school. It’s just a part of life.

My five-year-old is both different and similar to his older brother. Though he enjoys the outdoors and loves to find interesting bugs just as much as his brother, he’s not as much of a “nature boy.” He does like building things, and I think when he’s older, he’ll be just as skilled at building Lego kits as his brother. He also draws with a passion that far surpasses his brother’s interest in drawing, and my floor is frequently littered with markers, paper, and growing stacks of his artwork. I don’t mind the messes. It’s a small price to pay for fostering creativity.

There are things I want my boys to learn, including the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic, and I work my butt off to find the right resources that will make learning, if not fun, suitable for my boys’ interests and learning styles. I am grateful for the time that homeschooling offers me to get it right, and then we have time to stick to a concept until my boys really understand it. We also have more time to spend together and get outside on the days the weather is perfect. There is more time for the boys to sleep, and more time for them to spend on subjects that really interest them.

Perhaps my biggest reason for homeschooling, now that I see it in action, is the connections that our family is making on a daily basis. We are learning together, watching awesome documentaries everyday, and developing a closeness that I hope will never go away. My two boys play together well, and I think a bond is forming that will be there when they are grown up. While staying with my husband and me during the day, they also participate in running a household, and they understand why we have to spend part of the day working.

We have also made some wonderful friends through homeschooling, and we have met interesting people through the camps and classes that my son takes. These people are working in interesting jobs and teaching my son about the different possibilities he might pursue someday. I have found that by homeschooling, my boys are taken more frequently into the “real world” – the world that critics of homeschooling often say homeschoolers won’t understand when they are grown up. On the contrary, I think my eight-year-old has more knowledge about the wider world and the responsibilities he will have to undertake someday than I was when I graduated from college.

Homeschooling is not for everyone, and we have dealt with its challenges as well. Finances are always a source of stress, and I struggle to find freelance work I can do from home with decent pay. I also have to balance that work with the time I spend teaching the boys, helping them with their projects, planning lessons, doing house chores, and trying to find a few minutes to relax here and there. I also worry about whether we’ll be able to teach all the subjects my boys need to know, although so far, I have found that the Internet and community programs provide everything we need. Not living close to stores, extracurricular activities or friend’s houses gives life an added difficulty too. It’s hard to do everything I’d like to do, and I often wish there were more days in a week. But two years in, I can see more benefits than setbacks, and I’m always excited to find out what my boys’ next big interest will be.

March 19, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Timeline of My Son’s Star Wars Project

I wrote about Star Wars and some of my son’s projects for my column, but here I will explain how his interest in Star Wars has evolved. It’s a good example of project-based homeschooling, and if you have a child who has an interest but doesn’t seem to do much with it, this may be of interest to you. Because Star Wars has been a long-term interest for my eight-year-old, but it didn’t produce anything that might look like a real project until recently. In fact, I doubt my son considers that he has a “Star Wars project” going on right now — I am the one who has noticed his interest and tied all these “dabblings” into a neat bundle.

It was well over a year ago that my husband decided it was time that we watch the original Star Wars trilogy together. I was a little hesitant because my boys were young, and the movies are violent (though no bloodshed). Anyway, I was no match for my husband’s enthusiasm, so we went ahead and watched them. My boys enjoyed them. The eight-year-old especially liked them (he was seven at the time) because he could understand them better.

It was great fun watching them again, talking about the storyline, and showing my son yet another example of how stories have to have conflict in order to make them interesting. I think Star Wars has great life lessons, and the black and white good vs. evil in this sci-fi adventure is probably easier for young children to understand because there are no shades of gray! Teaching storytelling, the elements of a story, and what makes something an “action-adventure” gives this an educational twist that Mama likes. But I digress…

Since we own the DVD set, it also comes with the documentary of how the movies were made. My eight-year-old (then seven) enjoyed watching that too, especially the parts about how they did the special effects. He loved seeing the small models of the ships! He said he thought he could make something like that.

(Read my column about how watching the difficulties George Lucas had with making the film has influenced my son and helped his perfectionist tendencies!)

It was shortly after watching the movies and documentary that my son made a cardboard model of Darth Vadar’s ship. Although he told me the center part would be a cube shape because making a sphere out of cardboard was too hard.

Then, nothing else happened with his interest in Star Wars for at least a year. (Well, except studying the Star Wars website, which I’ll explain below.) Star Wars is part of our culture, so it would come up sometimes, and my son was glad he understood the allusions to the story. We may have checked out one or two Star Wars books from the library. I’m not sure. But he remained interested in Star Wars. He even got some Lego kits and small Star Wars toys for gifts, which he enjoyed.

Sometime this past year my husband started watching Clone Wars with the boys on Netflix. At first it was a once-in-awhile thing, but now we are all watching it regularly. It’s been pretty fun too, and it continues to fuel my son’s interest in the whole Star Wars saga.

At some point before we started watching Clone Wars, though, my son wanted to look up something about Star Wars online. This is when we discovered the official Star Wars website. It’s a great site with lots of pictures, and with my son’s growing reading skills, he has been able to navigate it pretty easily. He has perused it so much that he noticed when they made big changes to the website’s structure too.

Over the course of months, my son studied this site. He would always ask me if he could look something up on it, and then he might spend time perusing it. He never spent an excessive amount of time on it at one time, so I let him spend as much time as he wanted on it. No, I didn’t consider this part of his screen time. I considered it time well spent as he was learning how to do research on his own, and he was immersing himself in his topic of choice — something that is essential to learning and that shouldn’t be rushed.

I kept wondering if he would ever build a model of something, draw something or do anything else that would look more like a project, but I never said anything. I knew he would have to do this on his own, if he wanted to. I knew if Stars Wars was a deep interest of his, he would keep going with it. If not, then nothing else would happen. Either of those was okay with me. But I know this kid is a builder, so I kept expecting a building project to emerge.

Later, I realized that all last fall he was in a pottery class, and I bet that fulfilled his need to build. After the class ended, and during the holidays, he became interested in constructing paper dinosaurs, and at the end of that project, his Star Wars interest manifested. He constructed his own paper Jabba the Hut. (Read more about that in Project-based Homeschooling: Paper Dinosaurs + 1.) When he showed that to me, I secretly jumped for joy.

Over the holidays, at my son’s request, we watched the Star Wars trilogy again. It had been a good year since we had last watched it, and he had been asking to watch them again for a while. He specifically wanted to watch the documentary about the making of Stars Wars again. This time, my son paid the most attention to the part in the documentary about how they constructed the puppet for Jabba the Hut, and how puppeteers maneuvered the huge puppet.

It wasn’t long after this that my son came up with his idea to make a Jabba the Hut puppet. He worked on this slowly at different times, which is a little different from his usual spend-all-day-until-it’s-done obsessive manner. He still hasn’t finished it. He’s stuck wondering how to complete the back of it. He says he wants to finish it, and I have offered my help and also to forgo our morning lessons to give him more time, but he always turns me down. I think he’s frustrated by it, but I think he’ll figure it out eventually. Or maybe it won’t. That’s okay too because this is his work and not required work.

Jabba the Hut puppet. He attached the arms, eyes, and tongue to sticks so that they would be moveable parts. He still wants to put a back on it and add green dots.

He also made a clay Jabba the Hut. He told me it was so much easier than the puppet, and I was like, “Well, yeah!”

Clay Jabba.

His latest creation is the Republic Attack Gunship. He’s not finished with it either. Again, he’s having a bit of trouble figuring out how to make some parts out of cardboard, and he’s resisting my input. That’s okay. It’s just my job to remind him of his work and ask if he’d like to work on it again.

Republic Attack Gunship –  unfinished.

I added a little to his interest in Star Wars by buying my boys the Brainquest workbooks for their formal homeschool lessons. I liked what these covered, and I thought if it makes learning a little more fun for my boys, great. I hoped, however, that I wouldn’t ruin my son’s interest in Star Wars by turning it into work. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened. My eight-year-old actually seems to enjoy his reading practice in these books because it tells information about the characters and the plot lines in episodes I, II and III (which he hasn’t seen yet). Whenever a character appears in the Kindergarten level books that my five-year-old is using, and they don’t know the name of the character, my eight-year-old offers to look it up for his brother. So the books have actually seemed to encourage more interest instead of taking away, and I’m glad.

In addition, we are currently reading a fun spin-off series by Jeffrey Brown. The first one is titled Jedi Academy. These books are geared toward middle schoolers, but my eight-year-old loves them. He got the first one as a gift, and we’re buying the others as they come out.

I have been very hands-off this project, and I think it’s so cool that my son has had these ideas and implemented them all on his own. I help only when he asks. It definitely shows that my son is growing up because I remember a time I was “silently feeding” his interests, or giving more suggestions. I have a feeling his interest in Star Wars will continue, though it may be a kind of project where he dabbles in it here and there. I will continue to be a good PBH Mama by recording his work and finding all the connections!

February 2, 2015

Homeschool: 2nd Grade Mid-year Report

ft. yargo-1Unlike last year, which kept steady, this year’s daily life has endured many interruptions. Because of that, I’ve deviated from our original homeschooling plan, which I wrote about at the beginning of this year in the post 2nd Grade Homeschool Schedule and Curriculum (with Pre-K too!).

Last fall was a bit crazy. We had back-to-back visitors for several weeks, which was a great experience for my boys, but I don’t do formal homeschooling when we have family in town. I also had some unexpected freelance photography work, which I loved, but it made me busier than I wanted to be, considering I was also working for home / school / life magazine, hosting visitors, homeschooling, going to appointments, and keeping house. Don’t get me wrong — I actually enjoyed everything. It was just a little too much all at once.

I was looking forward to having a more leisurely 2015, but if you read my previous post about everything that has happened to us since the beginning of the year, you’ll see that hasn’t happened. Because of all these things, it’s made sense to simplify our homeschool lessons. At least, it feels simplified to me, although the boys are actually doing more work!

After the busy fall schedule cooled down a bit, I felt like my kids were behind in for-lack-of-a-better-word “formal” learning. They had a much richer experience with all the field trips and visiting they did with family, but I still want to keep up with that formal stuff. So, I abandoned our more leisurely pace, and almost every weekday morning that we are at home (and some Saturdays), I have had both boys work through their workbooks, concentrating mostly on reading and math:

  • They are still using the Star Wars workbooks by Brainquest.
    • My five-year-old loves doing his lessons and usually does more than I require. Of course, the preschool and kindergarten workbooks that he uses are fairly easy. Still, I’m impressed that he enjoys doing the worksheets and takes them seriously.
    • I especially like the 2nd grade reading workbook for my eight-year-old. They give him good reading practice, introducing new words and basic grammar concepts. It gives him a lot of writing practice, which he needs. I still go slow, when necessary, and sometimes I only require him to do half a page, but I make him erase any letter he writes wrong and do it again. Together with the extra reading we do, it’s good practice. The math workbook is just extra math practice — it doesn’t actually teach a strategy on how to do the math. He is much more willing to do the work without fuss now (and maybe I’ve learned just the right ebb and flow), which is a difference between now and the beginning of this year, so that’s another reason I’m going ahead and making a push for him to do a little more.
    • Mini review of the Star Wars books: If you have children who love Star Wars and need extra practice with their reading/math skills, then I recommend them. I don’t recommend them as a curriculum by themselves, although the reading and writing workbooks cover all the basics. However, I am sure we’ll be using more resources to hone these skills as time goes by. Since my boys both love Star Wars, they seem to enjoy seeing some of their favorite characters and learning some Star Wars vocabulary. Unfortunately, these workbooks only go through 2nd grade.

What I’ve added

I’ve been thinking, thinking, thinking over the last month and having conversations with my husband. What was I thinking about? That test we will be required to give him (according to Georgia law) next year, in the third grade. I didn’t want my son to take a test without prior experience on test taking. So, I did some inquiries about the tests, and I found the one we might use. I considered ordering it and giving him the second grade version this year. However, it is more complicated than I thought it would be. It costs about $40, we have to order the test, administer it within a few days and then return the package for grading. That felt a little intimidating for just a practice test. So, I went on Amazon, and I searched for practice tests.

  • I ordered Spectrum’s 2nd grade Test Practice, which is supposed to correlate to most state standards. I like it. We only do about two pages per day of the “lessons.” When I come to the end of a section, there are “sample tests” that are a little longer. On these days, that’s all I require my son to do. At the end of the book, I’m going to give him a longer, more comprehensive test over several days, which is provided. The book even comes with answer sheets, which shows him how to fill in those little bubbles.  I also like it because there are test taking clues included in the lessons.

So far, it’s been quite easy for my son to work through this test prep workbook, which gives me confidence that we are progressing quite well! I’m really impressed with how well he is reading! I’m not quite sure what happened. I think at age eight, it has just “clicked.” I still would not call him an eager reader — he doesn’t do it voluntarily. (But that’s because he’s so busy making things. He has different interests, and I’m not worried about that.) When he has trouble, it’s usually because he comes to a word he has never seen before, and I don’t think that’s a big deal. He’s learning more words as we continue with this reading practice.

He doesn’t love the workbook, but he thinks it is easy, and since I’m being lighthearted about it, it hasn’t given him any stress. He knows the purpose is practice taking a test, and we’re learning about what he knows/needs to learn. There is no pressure to get it all right.

What I stopped doing (for now)

  • I stopped using Life of Fred: Dogs for eight-year-old’s math in favor of getting some more practice in that Star Wars workbook. I have also ordered Singapore Math based on recommendations from a friend and some extensive reading I’ve done online. Although I plan to continue to use Life of Fred because my son loves it, and I think it does a good job teaching a lot of math concepts and how math is used in everyday life, I didn’t think it did a good job of helping my son find a strategy of how to add and subtract in his head. So I’m hoping Singapore Math will be a good fit for us. Between the two, he should have a good foundation in math. As I see him increasingly become interested in science/engineering types of activities, I feel it is extra important to make sure he has a solid math foundation.
  • We stopped watching Salsa for Spanish lessons. I will probably continue this at some point, or either find a different kind of Spanish curriculum when I think we are ready for it, but we just got so busy, it was one of the things we dropped.
  • We stopped working through the science experiment book. Again, got too busy, but we’ll probably visit it again at some point. I’m not worried because our family’s daily life and deep interests includes so much science!

What they finished

  • In my first post, I mentioned how my eight-year-old was taking his younger brother through the basic phonic lessons on Starfall.com. They finished that. I do think it was very helpful, and when my five-year-old gets a little older, he might benefit from going through it again. It was a very good review for older brother. ;)
  • My eight-year-old completed his second pottery class this fall (third, if you count the summer camp he took). It was a great experience for him. He has opted to take a break from pottery this spring, but he wants to take one of the summer camps again offered by the pottery studio. Many mornings while he was in class, I took my five-year-old to the botanical garden, and we enjoyed a morning using our sketchbooks. I’ll write about that sometime.

What we continue

  • Like I said, we continue to use Brainquest’s Star Wars workbooks for our basic reading and math lessons, and I added a test prep workbook for my eight-year-old, which has helped me see that we are progressing just fine. The boys also read/listen to books of their own choice as well.
  • I continue to read to them from a book of my choice before our lessons. Although I wanted to use this time to explore literature, it’s hard to pick stories that both ages will engage in. So, currently, I’m reading one of my library book sale finds: World Book’s Childcraft See the World. (2000) It’s a good introduction to the different continents and cultures of this world. There will also be some chapters about map making. Mostly, I’m reading this because it makes a nice compliment to our ongoing study of the world through the many documentaries that we continue to watch everyday.
  • The documentaries deserve a post all of their own, but I did want to mention that lately we’ve been making our way through a series of BBC documentaries on Netflix. Each one focuses on a specific area of the world and has about five 50-minute programs. So far we have watched Wildest IndoChina, Wildest India and Wildest Arctic. What I especially appreciate about these programs are how they touch on the crossroads between the wilderness and humans, sometimes delving into human rituals, religion and the history of the area. It’s been a great learning experience for us all. (There are sensitive issues and history brought up, so preview first, if you think your child would be too sensitive for it.) For those who are interested, I keep a Pinterest board on the documentaries we watch. It’s the only thing I use Pinterest for these days.
  • I still use Fridays as art days! I don’t always do a formal art lesson, but click the link to see what we have been doing.
  • Since my son is taking a break from pottery, I have enrolled both my boys in Sandy Creek Nature Center’s homeschool science classes again. (They had conflicted with pottery in the fall, so we took a break from that.)

What has flourished

All last fall, I felt like we were in a “project lull,” and I was missing how frequently my eight-year-old used to come up with ideas to make and build things. I was worried that because I was so busy, I was missing opportunities to support my son’s interests. But now I feel like it was just a lull, and perhaps that is natural once in a while. (It’s not that my son wasn’t being creative at all. He was sculpting cool stuff in his pottery class and still putting together Lego kits. And we did some art projects and other things. He also spent a lot of time studying the Star Wars online encyclopedia — Star Wars seemed like his biggest interest last fall — and I let him do that because I felt like it might lead to something, which it did.)

Around the holidays, my son’s “building instinct” kicked in again, and he’s been working on a few projects. He also received a robotics set for Christmas, and I can’t believe how educational and beneficial this set has been. He’s been teaching himself programming! I’ll be sure to write about that too.

My five-year-old also has been continuing his love of learning about dinosaurs, drawing, painting and now, coloring. We are filling up spaces with his work, and I love it when I find him digging into the paper and markers (his preferred medium). In my constant wonder on how to support his love of drawing, I have inadvertently turned my eight-year-old onto drawing a little more. My five-year-old didn’t care about the how to draw books I had on the shelf for him to find, but my eight-year-old found them, and he’s been using them! More on that to come!

Keeping Priorities

Written out like this, it might seem like our formal learning is very complex and time-consuming, but actually, it doesn’t take too much space in our day. At most, we might spend two hours a day on the workbooks. We might work up until lunchtime, but after that, my boys are free to do their projects and play, which is what I’ve always wanted for them. (No need for rushing to get ready to catch the bus, stand in lines, do homework after an already long day at school, or get to bed early!)

Those two hours don’t include all our home “school,” however. My husband and I read them books, tell them stories, and we watch very educational television together as a family.  We have conversations about people, the world, history and what different people do for a living. We go to outside classes, take field trips, get out into nature (weather permitting) and spend time with friends. Everyday the boys work on their own projects, and I make myself very available to support them, especially in the mornings and right after lunch. So, I still follow my children’s interests, but I keep a small window of time devoted to the fundamentals they would be learning in a traditional school. I don’t want them to get behind in case we ever have to put them in school, although I hope that never happens.

I have been watching my boys blossom as they explore topics and find the things that they are truly interested in. It is not uncommon for my eight-year-old to ask me to write down the spelling of some animal he learned about in Wild Kratts or The Octonauts so that he can go look it up on the Internet and view better photographs of it. They are independent learners, ask questions freely, and they are always telling me their ideas for making this or that. I have seen them create a deep bond together as they play, especially as they strategize about their collaborative building projects on Minecraft! (Stay tuned for a column about that.)

I treasure the time that homeschooling provides for them to do these things.

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