Posts tagged ‘education’

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.

February 17, 2014

What Is Homeschooling?

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 12, 2014.

The other day I was eating with my family at a restaurant in Winder, and we started chatting with our waitress. Like many people do, she asked my boys if they were in school, so we told her we were homeschooling. She was interested. She said she had a two-year-old, and she had considered doing something like that because she is concerned about everything “that is happening at schools.”

What she meant by that, I’m not sure, but I do know many parents have concerns about the state of our public schools whether it be too much pressure to teach to the test, peer pressure, violence or other reasons.

Then she asked, “So what happens when you homeschool? Does a teacher come to your home?”  The waitress seemed like a bright, young woman, but she did not understand what homeschooling is about, and there are probably many people like her.

Once I spoke to a representative at the Georgia Department of Education, and he told me a woman had just called him to say she was fed up with her kids’ school and wanted to homeschool. “So where do I send them?” she asked.

Let me make it clear: If you want to homeschool, you will be completely responsible for your children’s education.  You will be their teacher. You may decide to hire a tutor for a particular subject, or you may find some community classes or a co-op to enroll your child in, but you are completely responsible for making sure your child gets what he or she needs to make it in our society as an adult. Not only that, your child will be at home most of the time. That’s why it’s called “home” school.

There are many different philosophies and approaches to homeschooling. Some parents are strict “school at home” homeschoolers, and they make their children do everything exactly as they would at public school, but they do it at home. There are also online courses that provide a public school education in the comfort of one’s home, and you and your child would be in contact with a public school teacher from time to time.

The opposite extreme is “radical unschooling.” These parents believe that their children will learn everything they will need to know through life experience, and they follow their child’s lead when it comes to what they will teach. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about unschoolers because people think the children aren’t learning anything. This is not true, and I know that to unschool a child, a parent has to be willing to work hard and learn alongside their child.

Most homeschoolers fall somewhere between those two extremes, and most homeschoolers love their lifestyle because it gives them the opportunity to tailor the education to their child’s interests and needs. If their child has a learning disability or needs more time in a particular subject, they can go at the child’s pace. Likewise, gifted children do not have to be held back because a teacher has to make her class accessible to a wide range of children’s abilities.

There are homeschoolers who call themselves “Waldorf-inspired” or “Montessori-inspired,” or a mix of any number of educational philosophies. Most homeschoolers start out doing one thing, and then realize that they can relax because children are amazing, and when given the freedom and offered a range of experiences, they want to learn.

I’m not one to push aside the fact that you can find cases where children have been abused in homeschooling families. But as a friend of mine told me, school children are abused too, as she was. Going to school didn’t stop it.

Without fail, uninformed people always maintain that “socialization” is the big problem with homeschooling. I don’t really understand this when I remember the “misfits” in my high school who were ostracized by their peers.

Education is supposed to prepare our children to be productive, stable adults, and public school just doesn’t work for every child. Homeschooling may not work for everyone either, but at least it’s a viable option.

When considering homeschooling, parents should remember that no one, homeschooling family is a good representative of the homeschooling culture at large. Start doing some research.  Join local, online homeschooling e-mail lists such as those on Yahoo Groups or Facebook, and start asking questions.

It takes time to find a community when you homeschool, so start early. Now that we’ve been homeschooling for a few years, I’m happy that we’ve met some great families who are homeschooling not for extreme reasons but just because it seems like the right choice for their children.

Sometimes we get crazy looks when we tell people we are homeschooling, but I have noticed that more people are interested and supportive. Not long ago we met a woman who is a grandmother, and when we told her that we were homeschooling, she smiled and said emphatically, “Your kids will get to see the world with you.”

Yes, exactly. Homeschooling offers a lot of possibilities. It’s worth thinking about.

February 6, 2014

Magic Tree House Books

Magic Tree House BookNote: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 5, 2014.

For over a year, my husband has been reading the Magic Tree House Books by Mary Pope Osborne to my seven-year-old every night before bed. There are over fifty titles in the series, and currently they are reading #39, Dark Day in the Deep Sea. My son is thrilled because the two protagonists, Jack and Annie, are going to meet an octopus! Though I haven’t read the series with him, I’m privy to many retellings of the stories.

Jack and Annie are a brother and sister, and in the first book, they find a magic tree house and travel back into prehistoric times. In every book, they are sent on an adventure throughout time to different places and even to mythical places.  Through these books, my son has been introduced to Ancient Egypt, Leonardo da Vinci, the Civil War and the American Revolution, William Shakespeare, gorillas in the Congo rain forest and so much more.

The books are a great introduction to history and mythology, and there are even companion non-fiction books that will teach children more about the people and places Jack and Annie meet in their adventures, though we aren’t using those.

Starting with book #29, the books are referred to as “The Merlin Missions.” They are longer and the reading level is higher, so children can continue to be challenged as they grow with the series.

I have heard some criticism from other parents about the quality of writing in the books, which can make them unappealing for adults to read. But my husband has enjoyed reading the series with my son. He says the writing is simple and appropriate for kids, and he considers them to be fantasies and adventure stories for children. He thinks the author does a good job of getting kids excited about history, and he appreciates the author’s attempts at depicting the daily life of everyday people in the time periods the characters visit. From a history professor, that’s not a bad review.

Though we discovered the books while browsing at the bookstore, we only own two of them. My husband has been able to find all the books at nearby libraries by checking online first to find where the next book in the series is located.  No library seems to own all the books, but he has found them all by searching for them at the Winder, Auburn, Statham and Bogart libraries. Since they are short books, he checks out three or four of them at a time. That way they always have something to read each night.

Since I haven’t read the books myself, I thought I would interview my son about them. This is what he said:

Me: Why do you like Magic Tree House books?

My son: I like it because they do all these adventures, and there’s magic, and they meet all sorts of giant animals like a cloud dragon and an octopus and a sea serpent.

Me: What is your favorite book in the series so far?

My Son: Dragon of the Red Dawn, #37

Me: Is there a subject you wish she would write about?

My Son: She already has lots of cool books, but maybe one about going to a volcano and seeing a fire-breathing dragon.

Me: Are you glad Daddy is reading the series to you?

My Son: Yes.

Me: When you finish the Magic Tree House books, what series will you read with Daddy next?

My Son: I want to read Robin Hood with daddy. It’s not a series though.

Me: Anything you want to add?

My Son: They’re really good.

So there you have it from the seven-year-old himself.

Have you or your child read these books? What did you think?

January 30, 2014

Legos

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, January 29, 2014.

Legos is all the rage in our house right now. My seven-year-old is happiest when he is at his table putting some kind of Lego kit together. He doesn’t have very many of them, but I have a feeling we’ll be collecting more of them. I don’t mind.

The first time he wanted to try building with Legos was after he watched one of his friends do it, so last year we got him a helicopter-airplane-boat kit. He can only make one of those at a time, so it’s a lot of fun for him to make one, keep it a few weeks, and then he can take it apart and build another one.

This Christmas he got two new sets. The first one he had been asking for because his friend has one. It’s called the Warp Stinger, but it looks like some kind of mosquito to me. The second one was a complete surprise and came from grandma. It’s a coast guard ship. He loves both of them.

I don’t know why people say children have short attention spans. My son will sit at the table straining his neck and shoulders to put these kits together, and even when I try to get him stop for a break, he wants to keep going like some workaholic. If only he approached his reading lessons with the same spirit! I’m happy he likes Legos, though, because it is a very educational toy.

Any kind of blocks is educational because it’s an open-ended toy that gets a child’s creative mind going. As small children they build motor skills and begin to realize that they can create things in three dimensions. Blocks can be used to learn how to sort and how to learn about patterns. Legos can be used to teach about engineering and technology, and there are even Lego robotic teams that compete in national competitions.

The educational benefits go on and on. The Lego company has a whole division dedicated to getting Legos into the classroom, and they offer lots of instructional materials on their website too. (See https://education.lego.com)

I like them because they keep my boys busy. My seven-year-old will spend a long time putting one of his kits together, and he rarely needs me to help him. Sometimes I wish he would create something original instead of using the kits, but I find it amazing that he’s able to follow those instructions and put 300 of those tiny pieces together. I would never have the patience to do that.

My four-year-old is not old enough for the kits, but he has a big bin of Legos that he likes to play with. He likes to cover a baseboard with the Legos, or either he’ll build a “city.” He especially likes it when Mama will help him, and I have to say that there’s something relaxing about building with Legos. It’s not one of those toys that are fun for kids but mind numbing for adults. Legos are fun.

Recently I was surprised to find out that you can build almost anything with Legos when I stumbled on the website of an artist named Nathan Sawaya. He has several exhibitions that have toured North America, Asia and Australia. He uses Lego bricks to build sculptures of people, objects and even a red tail hawk. He has turned this simple toy into works of art.  Check out his website at brickartist.com.

Hmmm… Maybe next time I feel the urge to get creative, I’ll go for the Lego bin instead of the paper and paints.

Please share Lego creations from your house!

January 25, 2014

Teaching Children About Money

The Math and the Responsibility

When it comes to teaching my son about money, both the math side and the responsible spending side, it seems logical to me that the only way he’ll learn is to use real money. And learning how to count money is very motivating when you are counting your own money!

Teaching Math with Real Money

For math, we’ve done a variety of things. As I mentioned in my 1st grade math post, I have used some workbooks to teach math, and in the past, I’ve used storybooks and even my own stories to teach about math too. (This is something I will continue to do!) For teaching about money & coins, I’ve also done the following:

  • When my son was first learning his coins, I pulled out a piggy bank of loose change, and we sorted them into piles and rolled them into paper wraps.
  • We also have a fantastic little toy cash register. It comes with pretend money, but we can also use real money with it! The boys love playing “store.”
  • For a Christmas present one year, my brother’s family gathered “Coins of America” collectible quarters and sent them to my boys with some storage folders. The boys had a lot of fun putting the quarters into the folder and learning about each state in the process! (A good geography lesson too.)

Teaching Financial Responsibility

To begin the long process of teaching my sons about financial responsibility, the first thing my husband and I have done has been to talk honestly and straightforward about money. We let them know how much things cost. We let them know our house, our cars and food all cost money, and that’s why we have to work.  A great byproduct of homeschooling is that because the boys are home all day, they see firsthand what it takes to care for a home, and they go shopping with us too.  We discuss what we can and cannot afford to buy, and we talk about how we sacrifice some things in order for me to stay home with them full-time and homeschool.

Note: We don’t pound this into their heads. It’s simply a matter of mentioning it once in a while when a question or issue comes up.

Second, I have a little pouch for each of my boys with their names on it. Whenever they are given a little birthday or Christmas cash, they keep the money in the pouch, and they are allowed to spend it on what they want. (My four-year-old doesn’t understand this as well as his big brother.) My only rule is that once they see something they want, they wait one week to buy it. (I thank Lori Pickert for giving me this idea.)

I was afraid that when I began doing this, my seven-year-old would want the first toy he saw in every store. (He was six when I started this.) But he has impressed me by not doing that. He spends his money, and he hasn’t saved much, but he’s thoughtful about his purchases, and he doesn’t want “just anything.” He doesn’t spend all his money in one place. He’s always willing to wait a week too. So far, he has not changed his mind during that week, but I do think over time, it will teach him how not to be an impulsive shopper…. He’ll understand that the product will still be there, if he wants to wait a while.

I’m also hoping that over time, he’ll begin to see a pattern like this: I really wanted that horseshoe crab when I bought it, but now I rarely play with it. (This is something I plan on pointing out to him on occasion too.)  I’m also starting a spreadsheet that will show how they spent their money, and how much they would have had, if they had saved it.

I think having freedom to make his own decisions with his own money is important, and except for asking him to wait, we’ve let him decide what to do with it.

With a few exceptions, we do not buy him toys other than on Christmas and his birthday. Since he has his own money, we let him buy something, if he wants it.

I should also note that we do not give allowances. Housework is something everybody is expected to do. To earn money, however, I have told the boys that they can do extra work that is beyond our regular cleaning routine. For example, I’ve told them they can help clean the walls and base boards for money, and they have done this on occasion….not very well, but that’s not the point to me. (I might give them $1-2 for this, depending on the amount of effort expended.)

Only time will tell if this teaches them to be responsible with their money, but I think it will help. Ultimately, I think children learn from their parent’s behavior regarding money, and if the parents are responsible, the children probably will be too. Modeling good behavior, conversation and real-world experience go hand in hand.

Please share your advice for teaching kids about money in the comments section!

January 18, 2014

1st Grade Homeschool Math

Read these posts to see how we’ve made it this far in math:

I’m a firm believer that you need to find whatever works for you and your child. Don’t be scared to try different things until you find what works!

Last year we completed through Chapter 13 (out of 19) in Life of Fred: Cats, which is the third book in that series.  My son loves Life of Fred. It is story-based, quirky, and you can access the link to my review of it above.  Using it as a guide, I found other ways to practice the math concepts he was learning in that book. But by Chapter 13, it just got too hard for him, so I stopped.*

Part of the reason the book got hard was not because of the math. Because Life of Fred is a story, the author brings in anecdotes about other things, which is interesting and educational, but for my six-year-old last year, it went over his head.

I didn’t think he was ready to continue it this year either, so I have been reviewing math concepts with him.  To begin with, we didn’t use anything too exciting. I had some workbooks, so I used those:

I don’t like making my son do a lot of worksheets or workbooks, but in math, it has been necessary in order to hone in on important concepts and help him not forget what he has learned.

All of the concepts he has learned up until now, he’s very good at. He’s especially good at counting coins and telling time! He does well with place value too. He can add and subtract well but he doesn’t have his addition and subtraction facts memorized. I’m not going to worry about that yet.  I’ve noticed that something has “clicked” for him this past year in math (and reading). I think for some children, age seven must be when things come together.

Note: We do math lessons twice a week. Doing more than that has not given me better results, and I think doing more formal lessons would make him hate math. Right now he doesn’t mind it because of the slow approach I’ve taken as well as finding fun ways to learn it. As he gets older, we’ll continue to reassess what his needs will be.

I am planning to continue in Life of Fred again, but I may wait a little while. (*UPDATE: Spring 2014 – We did eventually go back to Life of Fred: Cats. I decided to start at the beginning of the book again, and then we finished the whole thing. So just waiting awhile really helped my son.) I have found an app for our iPad that my son and I both like very much, and he’s getting a lot of good practice with it. I like it because it keeps track of what my son is doing, how he is doing, and it automatically goes to the higher level when he has completed a lower level.

  • The app is Splash Math for Grade 1. It costs $9.99, which is much more than I usually pay for an app, but it has been well worth it.

Splash Math is a lot like doing a workbook, but it’s on the iPad. My son likes it much more than doing a workbook, and that’s okay with me. Unlike other apps, I consider this one our “math lesson,” so I sit with him as he works through the problems. Sometimes he needs help reading the word problems. I have also taught him “greater than” “less than” by using this app.

I also like that I can turn concepts on and off. If they are off, they won’t be included in my son’s practice. For example, I can turn off questions about “data and graphs” until I’m ready to teach it to my son. I have found that by sitting with him while he works through the questions, if he comes to something he doesn’t understand, I can explain it to him or do one problem for him, and from then on, he gets it.

My son likes it because he gets rewarded with an “aquarium,” and he gets something new for the aquarium periodically, such as a fish or crab, as he earns more points. The graphics don’t thrill me, and I don’t care for the anvil that you can drop on a crab’s head, but he likes the app, he’s practicing math, and that’s all that matters.

Sum Swamp game is great for practicing early math skills. The little container of vehicles does not come with it, but that’s how my four-year-old plays with it.

My boys’ favorite way to learn math is by playing Sum Swamp. I can’t recommend this game enough. We play it a lot (not just for math lessons). I bought it so that the seven-year-old could practice addition and subtraction, but it has been a great way to introduce the four-year-old to math, and he loves this game. He asks me to play it with him, and he will even play it by himself! (He uses manipulatives to add and subtract. The seven-year-old doesn’t need them.) It’s even fun for me!

Sum Swamp teaches addition, subtraction, the operation symbols + and -, even/odd numbers, and how to be a gracious winner and not a sore loser! Although we’re still working on those last two!

In my next post, I’ll be addressing how I’ve taught my son about money – both how to count it and financial responsibility. (Click here for that.)

That is it for first grade math. Please tell me what resources you have enjoyed using!

January 11, 2014

First Grade Homeschool Priorities

Homeschooling is exciting to me. I can think of a hundred different things I want to introduce to my children, and then I get frustrated that we don’t have time to do it all. There’s simply no way around that. However, when I lay out my priorities, I see that we are achieving quite a few of the most important ones. That is an achievement, and I know I should consider anything else icing on the cake.

I promised a post about our priorities for this year a long time ago, and it’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts about that, but finally, here it is. I struggled with this post because my priorities for my boys have not changed from when they were five and two years old. I wondered if there was any point in writing a new post. Briefly, this is what I wrote two years ago:

As I look back at this list, I’m happy to realize how over two years I have been able to keep these a priority! I emphasize over two years because it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture on those bad or lazy days!  So allow me to boast a little bit:

  • Imagination/Play/Motion – My boys play, move, and use their imaginations everyday!  They create things and come up with their own crafts, and they have plenty of time for playing make-believe too. There are days I don’t think I’m accomplishing anything, but it is on those days my boys have more freedom to create and play. I know that setting up an environment where they are free to do this has been a huge help in achieving this goal.
  • Literature – We read lots of books, and I make up a story for my seven-year-old every night before bed. My husband has told my four-year-old a story about Dig Dig the T-Rex every night for about a year now! Even on days that it feels like nothing else was accomplished, we end our days with book reading and storytelling. It’s an established ritual, and I can easily forget that it’s very much a part of homeschooling too.
  • Nature – I want to get outside everyday, but this just doesn’t happen. Yet when I think about our hikes, the classes at the nature center (which usually include a hike), and play dates at the beautiful parks in this area, I know we’ve done a good job of exposing our boys to nature. And that doesn’t even count our daily dose of nature documentaries!
  • How to find answers – Over two years my husband and I have done a very good job of honoring our son’s questions. I get frustrated that I don’t always have a notebook to write them down, and many of the questions slip through the cracks, but he continues to ask questions, and we have honored his interests. I have taught him to use the computer, library, and I’ve modeled how to ask experts when possible. This is a priority that is woven into our everyday parenting, so over the long haul, it will get done.
  • Spend quality, stress-free time together – I’ll be honest. Our time is not always stress-free. Daily life with children is hard, and no matter how much I’d like to ignore it, there are chores and work to be done too. But in general, I think our life is pretty good. My husband works at home, and we enjoy being together. We can sleep late, start and stop school & projects when we need to, watch T.V. together, and we take field trips whenever we can. As long as I don’t panic about the small stuff, it’s a good life.
  • Teach Responsibility/involve him in my work – I think this a positive byproduct of homeschooling. When children are home everyday, they have to see what it takes to make a household work. And, with everyone home all day, the house gets a lot messier, so they have to help. There is no way around this. We also do not hesitate to talk about money and how much everything costs. When mom and dad have to do their work, the kids know why. Though I have not involved my son in blogging/writing, he is aware of what I do, and he likes to look at my blog. He is interested in photography, and now both our sons have their own cameras!

Our priorities have become the stuff of daily life. How awesome is that? These will never go away.

So what about the first grade priorities? They have turned a little more academic, though I strive to balance that with everything you just read about, and I want to go at my son’s pace. These are the big priorities for this year, in order of importance:

  • Teach him to read. I know there’s a lot of differing opinions about teaching children how to read vs. letting them go at their own pace. While I didn’t want to push my son beyond his level, I felt that at age seven, there was a good chance he would be ready to go to the next level, and I was right. I don’t think he would have gotten here on this own, so I’m glad we’ve continued to practice reading at an easy-going pace.
  • Math practice. I wanted to make sure my son was solid on some math concepts, so instead of moving forward in Life of Fred, I have been having my son practice math. It’s going well, and I’ll tell you how I’m doing that in an upcoming post.
  • Giving him time for project work.  I wanted to make sure he had time to pursue his own interests, which is mostly in science and building projects. By keeping my other academic priorities light, he’s had plenty of time for this. I’ve written about some of his project work, and I’ll continue to do so as time allows. He has been dipping into various projects this year, including his carnivorous plant project, building DNA models and learning about DNA, building ship models (and in the process learning about history), and doing small crafts that he picks out and loves to do – like making paper airplanes and cutting out snowflakes.

I should also mention that I consider a lot of this work both “project work” and “fulfilling a typical course of study.” My son’s interest in nature and science has meant that we make attending the Homeschool Science Classes at the Sandy Creek Nature Center a priority. I never miss a class unless we’re sick! My four-year-old has also been taking the knee-high naturalist class this year, just like his brother did at four-years-old.

A lot of the books we read have to do with science or history, and when we watch television, we watch nature and science programs or other shows that lead to good conversations. (Right now we’re watching The Andy Griffith show. We’ve talked about history, family values, stereotypes and more by watching that show!)

So much overlaps in our homeschool. If you homeschool, I’m sure you will understand.

Of course, we study other things, such as Spanish, different cultures, religions, art, and financial skills. These are priorities, but I’m not listing them as first grade priorities because these are things that I want to teach slowly, over the course of their childhoods and teenage years. At some point they may become more prominent in our everyday teaching, but for now, I think these are best done through books, conversation, fun lessons, and other means. Like I wrote before, learning is like a chain link fence, and we add links here and there through age-appropriate activities.

But reading is an essential skill that is the foundation for independent learning! And math skills build upon one another…it’s important to master one concept before moving onto the next. So we’re working on these. And project work is my son’s work, and that is what all this learning is for in the first place!

Thank you for reading this long post! I will follow up with more specifics about our 1st grade reading and math lessons.

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