Project-based Homeschooling: Piano

If you told me a year ago that my son would be taking piano lessons now, and not only that, but he would be showing talent, dedication and a deep interest in classical music, you could have knocked me over with a feather. This has been the most surprising development in our homeschool for me, and I am not sure when I’ll ever get used to it. As I wrote on the home/school/life blog, I thought music would be one of those gaps in our boys’ education.

(Note: After writing this post, I remembered this post: Music Appreciation with Beethoven. How could I have forgotten the year and a half he was obsessed with Beethoven’s 9th symphony?! I suppose music has always been with him, but it remained quiet for a while.)

I have to hand it to my husband when it comes to fostering my son’s love of music and encouraging him to continue. While my husband doesn’t play an instrument, he loves listening to all kinds of music and has much more knowledge about it than I do.

A while back, I wrote a post titled The Power of Time and Materials, which is my plea to parents that in order to mentor your children and find their deep interests, you must first provide them with the time and the proper tools. I referred to a good space to work in that’s located in the heart of your home, good materials such as quality art supplies, a good stash of recyclables, and time spent creating with these items. I would, of course, extend this to other areas of learning, if it were in the family’s budget.

Little did I know that my husband would naturally go with this line of thinking when it came to my son’s piano practice. When my son expressed interest in taking piano lessons, my husband spent time researching what kind of keyboard my son would need to practice on. (Granted, “research” is my historian-husband’s middle name!) At that point, we bought a digital keyboard with weighted keys, and we found a piano teacher nearby to begin lessons. We told each other that we’d be happy if our son kept taking lessons for a full year because we both agreed that music education is a part of a well-rounded education.

But our son loved taking lessons, and he loved practicing. He also seemed to have a natural talent for knowing where to place his fingers….I mean, I would have to spend a year memorizing the notes, the letters, and where to put each finger! I have never been musically inclined. But my son seemed to get the piano easily, much like my mother did, though she didn’t play piano seriously. I guess the talent skipped a generation!

Meanwhile, my husband continued reading about the piano industry, proper piano playing technique, and what you need to do, if you’re a serious piano student. One of the best resources he has found are the videos created by Robert Estrin on YouTube.

(I should note that in project-based homeschooling, it’s more proper to let the child do the research, if they want to. If they are motivated, then they will continue to learn about what interests them, and they’ll do it at a pace and level appropriate to them. We don’t always go along with this line of thinking. To be a classical pianist, you have to start early and do it the right way, and there is no way that at nine-years-old, our son would even think about these things. In his other projects, it didn’t matter so much, but in this case, we need to be pro-active and guide him. We still, however, give him the option to stop playing piano, if he changes his mind about it. I would never push my child to do something unless he seemed pretty motivated to do it. There is a big difference, in my opinion, about pushing a child through a temporary lag and pushing a child who isn’t interested at all!)

As time went on, my son showed us that he could advance quickly through the material. His teacher told me that in her 20+ years of teaching piano, she never had a student move as quickly as my son.

I’m not saying he’s a genius at piano. Far from it. It doesn’t all come easy to him (of course). There are times when he’s tired and would rather not practice. As with anything a person pursues, there are ups and downs. But he continues to say he wants to play piano, and he’s striving to play the hard stuff. We realize he has the potential to take this very far, if he wants to, so we feel we need to give him the right tools and opportunities.

I think what also motivates him is our support. My husband or I (and many times both) sit with him while he practices twice a day. Each practice has been anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 hour (and now getting longer), so it’s a huge commitment on our part. We love doing it, but it takes a huge chunk of our day. We also help him find music to listen to online, listen with him, read about composers, etc. (Again, I credit my husband with doing most of this.) Basically, we’re as excited about music as he is. 

And not only that, but because he progressed much quicker than expected, we advanced to an upright piano, and it wasn’t long after that that we traded it in for a grand piano. When we were shopping for the grand piano, we also met a teacher whose knowledge and focus were in line with the goals my son has, and when this teacher offered to teach our son, we felt we couldn’t pass up the offer. I’m sure plenty of people think we’re crazy, but they don’t know our son like we do.

I told my son that DISCIPLINE is when you have a goal and you work to get that goal even when you don’t feel like it. I told him he has discipline, and I’m very proud of him for that!

Through my husband’s research, we’ve learned that if our son ever decides to pursue a career in music, it’s essential that he starts very young and does it right. He’ll be competing against the best pianists that started playing at much earlier ages. Some of them are already well ahead of him. So, we encourage him to keep going because we see a talent and potential, and because of that, we know he might pick this as his career when he gets older and more mature. We don’t want to think that we didn’t do everything we could to help him, if he does.

Of course, we’re fine if he doesn’t pick music as a career. After all, music is a difficult career path, and most musicians make little money. But there are many ways to use music in one’s life, and there are other careers that a musical training can lead to. If nothing else, it will enrich his life and connect him to other people. This makes me happy.

A big part of project-based homeschooling is observing your child to see where he puts his energy. This is because sometimes actions speak louder than words. So with this in mind, here are some other ways we know music has become a deep interest to our son:

  • He loves watching classical music on television. He’s watched countless classical music videos on YouTube. With his father, he is slowly watching the entire 2015 Tchaikovsky piano competition This is at his request.
  • He doesn’t seem to mind hearing about the tidbits his father learns in his research on music and piano playing. (Which is quite remarkable, if you ask me!)
  • Most of all, in the last few months, my husband and I have started taking turns taking him to the free classical concerts at two nearby universities. He’s been to 10 this year! Faculty and student recitals are always free and open to the public, and some of the other concerts put on by the university are very inexpensive. Watching my son’s eyes sparkle with excitement whenever we go to a concert is such a joy, and a great testament to his love of this music. I mean, how many kids would be patient enough to sit through classical concerts?!
A selfie we took at a concert.

This has been a long post, so thank you if you’ve taken the time to read the whole thing! I am always so happy to hear your thoughts and learn about the activities your children are doing. Please leave a comment, if you have a moment.

Kindergarten is the Easiest Grade to Homeschool

I just read my last post about Kindergarten: Homeschooling Kindergarten for the Second Time. I’m glad to see I’m still on track with what I wanted to accomplish with my six-year-old, though there have been a few tweaks.

I wrote that this boy was growing – in body, intellect and creativity – by leaps and bounds. That remains true! He’s come so far in just a few months. He is talking all the time, playing by himself in the most creative ways, and he’s the sweetest, most adorable child. He’s very affectionate, and he’s a caretaker – he reminds his older brother to pick up his plate and return it to the kitchen or wash his hands when he comes in from outside! I remember when my eldest was seven I thought that was the best age ever. I think this kid will prove that true as well. (Not that nine isn’t wonderful too! But it’s different.)

Schedule

At the beginning of the year, as I mentioned in that first post, I was working with my six-year-old on his lessons right after lunch for about an hour. This worked well for a time, but soon it became clear that it conflicted with the optimal time for my older son’s piano practice. (He likes to practice right after lunch and dinner.) So, I switched this to an hour right before lunch. (If you read my post about 3rd grade, you’ll see this is why I cut out Spanish.) I also try to wake the boys up a little earlier in the morning too. (You don’t have to feel sorry for them, though. I’m waking them up at 8:30ish.)

My six-year-old is also able to join the nine-year-old in the mornings for readalouds, practicing the multiplication tables, and sometimes I give him a math or handwriting worksheet that he completes by himself. See below for more details.

A little composer? Hmmm.

Curriculum

Language Arts

My six-year-old enjoyed listening to My Father’s Dragon and Charlotte’s Web. He also listened to Only the Names Remain and several other books about the Cherokee Indians, though I’m not sure he enjoyed those as much. In the evenings, we often read from various storybooks of his choice. Right now he has me reading Calvin and Hobbes to him.

As I said I might in that first post, I quit using Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons for now. It got too hard for him. I went back to the Kindergarten Brain Quest Star Wars workbooks, and he completed all of them! Now we’re working with Starfall.com and using a Starfall Level 1 Reading and Writing Journal, which I received from my sister who is a teacher. (Thanks, Terri!) He loves the computer portion of Starfall.

Also, he has no problem using the Handwriting Without Tears “My Printing Book.”  However, since the Starfall workbook requires plenty of writing practice, I don’t always make him do both workbooks at the same time. (I’m extremely grateful this kid doesn’t mind writing, which I attribute to his love of drawing. Though for the life of me I can’t get him to hold the pencil right! Complete opposite of his older brother in every way!)

Math

I’m still using Singapore’s Primary Math Texbook 1A with Home Instructor’s Guide (U.S. Edition) with great success. I really like this program. I’m slowly going through it, and I’m not trying to finish Level 1 in one year. I just want to make sure we do every exercise, worksheet and most of the games. My six-year-old doesn’t love the worksheets, but he likes the games and activities. And really, he doesn’t give me any problem doing any of the work except for a little groaning before lesson time.

It’s funny because if you ask my six-year-old if he likes math, he’ll say no. However, his actions speak louder than words. This kid has always loved numbers, and ever since he could count out loud, he’s been counting things obsessively. This year, I have seen a marked increase in his interest in numbers. A week doesn’t go by when he doesn’t ask me questions like “What’s 120 + 120?” or “What’s 30 + 30?” He also will count things and let us know how many there are. When we watch Netflix, he’ll announce the length of the show. “This show is 54 minutes and 22 seconds.” “We have watched 23 minutes and 6 seconds and there is 13 minutes and 2 seconds left!”

Recently I began to teach my older son the multiplication tables, and I started with the 3 times tables. Every time we do lessons, we’ll take a few minutes to go over them, and I time him to see how fast he can recite them. My six-year-old asked if he could try this too, so he’s learning the multiplication tables already!

Not like math? I don’t think so!

These are his favorite birds: “Chick,” a black-capped chickadee and “Chirp,” an American goldfinch.

Science, Social Studies & Art

 I’m lumping these together because (except for art), we’re not doing any formal lessons in these areas yet. My six-year-old follows along with any science project or documentary-watching that my older son does. He listens to the articles on News-O-Matic, and he participates when we do some art. I doubt he’s behind in these areas!

His drawing has decreased a little bit in the last few weeks (he used to draw everyday!), but he just started coloring again in his bird-coloring book. Also, he has benefitted greatly from his older brother’s piano playing because he’s been learning about music through listening and observing.

Projects

His bird collection + 2. And I think a few are missing!

He has not done any kind of project lately that warrants a blog post of its own, but I should note that he still loves birds, and we continue to observe them through our windows – he knows the names of the most of the birds who visit our yard. His trusted friend “Chick,” the black-capped chickadee, is by his side throughout most of the day and night. He occasionally draws birds, makes a nest out of clay, or I read a book about them to him. I can definitely call this a long-term interest, and I try to feed it however and whenever I can! But I also don’t force him to do anything with it. You can read about some of the projects he did on birds in Project-based Homeschooling: Birds & Feathers.

As mentioned above, drawing and coloring was always a keen interest of his, though he took a break from it for a while. Just recently he started coloring again, though, in (of course) his bird-coloring book.

Last but not least, his favorite pastime is playing on his tablet. He particularly loves the games Minecraft, Hungry Shark, and Jurassic World Lego.

I would say that dinosaurs remain a huge interest of his as well, and small projects pop up now and then having to do with them. Most recently, he began dictating a story to me about some dinosaurs. I’m looking forward to seeing if he keeps that up!

We visited the Cherokee basketry exhibit at the Georgia Museum of Art after reading about the Cherokee Indians and Trail of Tears.

So that’s the nitty-gritty on how kindergarten (and third grade) has been going this year. I’m planning to wrap up the year very soon. Although we’ll do some work during the summer, I plan to make it lighter and more interest-driven.

Please tell me how your year has been shaping up!

Everybody Needs a Mentor

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on April 27, 2016.

This bread-baking mission I’m on is full of frustrations, but since I’m doing it for fun, that’s okay. It’s like a puzzle I’m determined to figure out, and I’m relieved I have no deadline for it.

I bought a book, Classic Sourdoughs: A Home Baker’s Handbook, and I read it carefully, followed the directions, and the results were so-so. I have watched YouTube videos, read blog posts, and I’ve posed questions to my Twitter followers. (I really appreciate those who are helping.)

But I have realized that EVERYBODY BAKES BREAD DIFFERENTLY. I try this, I try that, and still, I’m not happy with my results. How do I get that beautiful sourdough bread with all the holes and good taste?!

I would love to have a bread-baking expert by my side to help me. This person could look at my sourdough starter and tell me if something is wrong with it. She could watch me mix and knead the dough. He could note the temperature of my house or other conditions that might affect the bread baking.

When it comes down to it, you can only teach yourself so much. Sure, someday I may figure this out, but how long will that take? Will it happen before I waste a barrel full of flour? Will it happen before I get so frustrated I give up? Or maybe I’ll finally produce a loaf I can live with, but I’ll never know what I could have produced, if someone had shown me a better way to do it.

I hope you see where I’m going with this. Everybody needs a mentor, but most importantly, children need mentors. I don’t believe the way most kids are educated these days is enough. Kids are graduating from college and many of them are struggling to find decent paying jobs, let alone jobs in their chosen field.

Sure, learning through the school of hard knocks can build character, but most of the time, the school of hard knocks just knocks people down, and they can’t get back up again. Or if they do get up, they are too far behind to catch up in this life’s rat race.

I would rather a child build character earlier in life, and I would rather them have a step ahead in these basic areas like “what am I going to do with my life?” Don’t the people who believe in the “school of hard knocks” realize that the people getting ahead and accomplishing amazing things usually had help? Sometimes you hear a great story of how some person raised himself out of a difficult life and accomplished something great, and we love those stories because they are RARE.

Most of the young people who are accomplishing great things had a great education and great mentors, or “connections,” if you’d rather call it that. Sure, money helps. But I feel certain behind every success story there was someone who recognized a talent, fostered it and told that child exactly what he needed to do to get ahead. They put him in touch with the right people, and this by itself can be very motivating to a child. Doing these things for a child costs nothing.

When children don’t have anyone who is interested in their unique talents, they start to see these talents as something negative instead of positive. So they go down another path, and many of them end up in a less than desirable situation.

Whenever I meet a child, I am struck by how that child has a special talent or interest that is unique to him or her. Whether she has achieved a billion points on her favorite video game, or he loves collecting rocks, it makes me believe that we’re all born with an innate curiosity and drive to do things.

It depends on what happens to us in childhood whether we use our potential or not. Did someone tell us to “stop acting like that” when we let our imaginations go wild, or did someone take an interest in our wild notions?

A mentor can be any person, but for a child, the parent is the person who knows him best, and as an adult, a parent has the ability to give a child a helping hand, lend a tool, do a little research, or find another adult who can help. Don’t let kids waste their potential and then struggle to compete with peers who are well ahead of them. Kids need our help and guidance. Be a mentor.

Homeschooling 3rd Grade: Where It’s Taken Us And How our Schedule and Curriculum Have Changed Over the Year

Putting together his Meccano robot.

I just read over the post I wrote earlier this year, Homeschooling 3rd Grade: A New Venture. That was a good title for that post. Third grade has had a different feel to it than the first years of our homeschooling adventure, and my nine-year-old is making a huge shift in his maturity as well as activities. In the last 2-3 months, he has done very little creative building and clay sculpting. This makes me a little sad, but I know it shouldn’t. It’s because he’s turned his attention to the piano, and this has been exciting for all of us. It’s a big commitment on all our parts. For my son, he has to practice, practice, practice. For us, we have to create the time and space for him to practice and also be there to support him. On top of that, I’ve had to do more academic work with him. I don’t think he’s lost interest in building and sculpting, but he doesn’t have the time, so he’s choosing what is more important to him, which I think is great. He is also maturing, showing glimpses of the adolescent to come, and while he’s capable and willing to take on more work, he also needs plenty of downtime and fun time, which I try to give him.

Learning the piano has become a time crunch for everybody in the house because my husband and I try our best to sit and listen to him play. We’re delighted to do this, and I think it helps motivate our son. We also help him remember what his teacher told him. Since this is a big part of our day, and it’s become important to our son, I have let other subjects slide. I know that letting my son focus on his work is essential, and it’s a great opportunity we have while homeschooling. Because we’re flexible when it comes to curriculum and time, I can make sure he has plenty of time to play and be a kid as well as work hard at what he loves. (At least, I try to do this.)

Intermission at the symphony.

I hope to continue on with these other subjects again at some point, but I’m not worried about it. My son’s education in music goes well beyond his practice since he’s learning about the composers and doing a lot of listening and observing too. But I’ll write more about that in a different post. This post will focus mostly on the work I require him to do.

Our Schedule

During the Fall season, we were quite busy but in a good way. We had appointments on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. My nine-year-old had a piano lesson on Thursdays and a class on Friday morning. The first 8 weeks, he took a pottery class, and the last eight weeks of the season, he had a chemical engineering class which was a program done by Engineering for Kids. We enrolled him in both of those classes because of his interest in these subjects.

I’ll digress a minute to talk about the classes. Unfortunately, we weren’t happy with either of them. A new pottery teacher seemed to “dumb the class down” to the level of very beginning students. (This was my son’s third class.) As for the chemical engineering class, we could have done many of those projects at home with a book. (Very disappointing considering Engineering for Kids does these programs in public schools.) This was the first time we were ever disappointed in classes my son has taken, so I think we’ve been pretty lucky. But it showed me that as my son gets older and more knowledgeable about the subjects he cares about, it will be harder to find outside sources that can challenge him.

This season, my son has only had piano lessons to concentrate on. I still do main lessons with him on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday mornings with a few exceptions.

We also took time out for both my boys to attend a three-day spring camp at the botanical garden. That was fun for them!

3rd Grade Curriculum

Language Arts

We’ve been doing a lot of reading and that makes me happy. I start most our mornings off with a read-aloud (this is something I let go for awhile, and I’ve managed to weave it back in, so I’m very happy about it), and I also read to the nine-year-old right before bed. Briefly, here is some of what we’ve read:

My son is reading (and re-reading) three big volumes of Calvin and Hobbes, which he loves. They sit on the kitchen table with our newspapers, and he reads them throughout the day. Besides this, he’s been reading the Battle Bugs series, which he seems to enjoy.

This year, I have read My Father’s Dragon, Charlotte’s Web, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Story of Dr. Doolittle, and On the Shores of Silver Lake out loud to him. I also read (at his request) some books about the Lewis and Clark Expedition and several books (of my choice) about the Cherokee Indians, including Only the Names Remain. Right now I’m reading Alice in Wonderland and The Long Winter. (Some of these books my younger son listens to as well.)

We finished All About Spelling Level 1! Can’t say my son loved it, but I thought it was a great program, and it showed us both that he can spell, if he thinks about it.

For handwriting, we switched from Handwriting Without Tears to a calligraphy set. My son still loathes writing with a utensil, but it became a little more bearable with a calligraphy pen. I let him pick a sentence of his choice to write in calligraphy.

With a test prep book and some posters I have, I’ve been going over parts of speech with my son because I know that will be part of the test he’s required to take at the end of the third grade. I can’t imagine a worse way to foster a love of writing (unless a child likes it) than teaching kids the parts of speech at this age, and for the life of me, I don’t know why he needs to know this right now. I really hate having to teach it, and I hate having to test him. (But grateful we are homeschooling considering the ridiculous testing they do in schools these days!) Enough said about that.

Math

I am so proud of how far we’ve come in math this year, but it was my academic priority. We completed four Life of Fred books. (Yes, four! Which puts us at completing seven total.) This year we worked through Dogs, Edgewood, Farming and Goldfish. I have the next three books, which is suppose to take us through 4th grade, and I plan to start them in the summer (or maybe fall). For now, we’re just doing some practice in the test prep book.

I have also begun to require that my son memorize the times tables, and we started with the three times tables. I put a little chart of “the threes” up on the wall, and I covered the answers. We go over it every time we do lessons. To make it fun, I began timing my son on how fast he could recite the 3 times table, and I get him to try to beat his last time. To my delight, my six-year-old wanted to join in on the fun. (Let me be clear: It’s fun for the six-year-old because he’s obsessed with numbers. Not so much for the nine-year-old.) So now they do this together, which makes it more fun. (At least for the six-year-old. Perhaps it’s tolerable to the nine-year-old.)

Using the Magnetism experiment kit that Nana sent them.

Science 

As mentioned above, my son took a chemical engineering class during the fall season. We also continue to watch science and nature documentaries. However, for the first time, we’re going to be starting a science curriculum, and we’re so excited! My son is so far ahead in science that we picked a middle school curriculum. We purchased Elemental Science’s Biology for the Logic Stage. We’re going to start this during the summer, and I’ll let you know how we like it. (For those of you looking for science curriculums, elemental science is a secular curriculum.)

Social Studies

Not much has changed in my approach to social studies. My son is still enjoying News-O-Matic occasionally, and we’re trying to follow the presidential election, though not in depth. My son is beginning to show more interest in history documentaries. (Especially this recent one about the Vikings.) And we’re putting our History Timeline to good use.

Most important to note is that my son’s segue into studying history is coming through his interest in music. He loves learning about the famous composers, and we’ve been using Meet the Great Composers as one resource.

Also, I already mentioned that we did a little unit on the Cherokee Indians by reading several books and visiting the Cherokee basketry exhibit at the Georgia Museum of Art.

Tellus Science Museum. My boys are on the right side of the dinosaur.

Art

My son took a pottery class this fall, and during that time, I went sketching with my younger son. After this, however, I have only done a few Art Fridays, and this makes me sad. I need to find a new, inspiring resource to get me going again.

We have had some good art sessions though, and we recently visited the Georgia Museum of Art to view a Cherokee basketry exhibit and the MFA student exhibition. My boys don’t love art as much as I do, but I think it’s an important part of a well-rounded education.

I shouldn’t fail to note that my son is learning about music, which is art, and he has attended several classical concerts this year too!

Spanish and/or Chinese

This is the first time I’ve mentioned Chinese, huh? Well, we have a Chinese calligraphy set that I plan to use. We got started, but then that got stalled. And same with Spanish. We had a great start at the beginning of the year using Mango free through our library, but that’s just something I’ve had to let slide as my son focuses on his music and I focus on teaching him what he needs for a test AND make sure he’s got plenty of free playtime.

But third grade is not over yet! I need to test my son because the Georgia law says I need to do so every three years, starting in the third grade. I’m going to be doing that soon, and then I’m going to consider third grade over, and we’re going to be focusing more on the wonderful work that my kids love to do. In many ways, I’m already doing that.

Next up I will post about how kindergarten is going with the six-year-old!

A Little Bit of Wildness

This morning was the first morning that was warm enough for us to sit on the porch and do lessons. I love sitting on the front porch, but it’s tricky doing our lessons out here because it’s hard to keep the boys focused. They are ready to jump out of their seats and go play in the yard, but frankly, since there are some days that I have a hard time getting them outside, I don’t mind. I guess you could also call doing lessons outside my strategy for getting them to play outside. But we still got a lot of work done, so I’m feeling pretty good about this morning.

I am in the process of reading this wonderful essay by Carol Black. (It’s so long, I haven’t finished it yet!) She talks about how kids in traditional schools are losing their wildness. (Really, you should go read it yourself. She explains this much better than I am.) I began thinking about this and wondering that even though my kids are not in traditional school, they probably don’t have that kind of wildness she refers to. In an attempt to balance that unavoidable necessity of being able to live within our society, I make my kids sit down every morning and do lessons. I make them clean up their dishes. I make them get up early and get to places on time. All these things temper that natural wildness.

I also let my boys spend time (because they so desire it) on screens. We don’t live on a big farm where my kids can wander aimless for hours, and though we do have a big yard, my kids can get bored outside after awhile. We garden, but we only grow a few vegetables successfully. There are days they want to go outside and play. There are days when they aren’t interested in going outside at all. Although the idea of living on some land and letting them wander for hours sounds ideal, it just isn’t happening. It’s not realistic for us.

But I agree with her. Humans lose something vital for our well-being when we’re stuck inside a building all day, and kids, especially, need to have more freedom to move around, explore, and develop an appreciation for nature. So many adults are stuck at a computer all day, they feel no connection to their inner wildness. I hope my children will grow up to feel a connection to nature.

This morning after lessons, my nine-year-old brought me this little hairstreak butterfly to show me, and it sat on his hand long enough for me to take its picture. While doing lessons, we noticed how the mama and papa bluebird would not feed their chicks in the birdhouse on our porch because we were too close to it, so we moved to the other end of the porch, and then the bluebirds got to work again. I also thought about how both my boys know the names of all the common birds we see in our yard, and yesterday evening my six-year-old came in from the backyard (where he was playing alone) to tell me he heard the baby chickadees in the birdhouse out there for the first time.  And finally, yesterday I noticed my boys stooped in the backyard observing something for a long time. Later, they told me they were watching some ants eat a worm — a very fascinating encounter for two little boys!

So perhaps we are striking the right balance between being a little bit wild and being a little bit not wild. Or, at least, we’re learning to appreciate the wild things and our place alongside of them as wild (yet just as predictable as the bluebirds) human beings.

***

And on the opposite kind of subject, my post Don’t Cut the Screen Time — Just Make Sure It Countsis up on the home/school/life blog today.

At the Heart of Homeschooling

I made some minor changes to my blog. First of all, I switched to a new template, though it’s very similar to what I had before. But it opens up the menu and side margin a little, which I like.

I also changed my tagline to “at the heart of homeschooling.” I did this partly because I couldn’t think of anything else, but also it seemed right. We are at the heart of homeschooling. That is, in the thick of it! There is no turning back from it now. We are educating our children so much differently than they would be in school. Is it better? I think so. But I’m not saying school is bad for all kids either.

Our kids are engaged in learning almost all day. When they play, they are deep in a crazy, imaginative make-believe world of their own creation, which I believe is the best kind of learning for kids. They don’t have the stress of constant test taking or having to switch gears so often. They are learning at their own pace. We have conversations about dinosaurs, classical piano concertos and composers, Calvin and Hobbes, birds, Star Wars, and oh the endless questions…which are all encouraged!

I’m learning more and more how odd we are, though. Most people don’t live like us. Most people aren’t excited about learning or exploring the world. They don’t ask questions, and they pretty much do what everyone else is doing. They put their boys in sports and girls in gymnastics. (I’m not saying these activities are bad! They can be very cool, but they are also more popular.) It’s hard to find people who do the uncommon stuff. People don’t talk about the cool fossil they bought at a rock show, sketching at the garden, obsessing about the birds in their yard, taking piano lessons, and general things that geeks love. (But I’m not saying people don’t enjoy these activities or a combination of popular activities with these either! It’s just hard for me to find these people.) That is, unless they are homeschoolers. Homeschoolers understand more about these things.

I don’t consider us privileged. I certainly don’t consider us better than anyone else. And we definitely aren’t swimming in money to make our lives easier. But we’re different. We make different choices. We have different priorities. We don’t fit in with the crowd. And that’s okay.

Then again, a lot of people don’t fit in with the crowd. But they are probably like us…they are sitting at home reading a book, taking a coding course online, working in their workshop, or spending time at the library. They are a quiet crowd. They are busy doing their thing and not caring what other people think.

Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts as I make some tweaks to the blog and reflect on this lifestyle I’m writing about here.

Schools on Trial

schools-on-trial-goyalNote: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 23, 2016.

If you’re a parent with a child in public school, you may want to read Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice by Nikhil Goyal. Nikhil Goyal is an accomplished twenty-year-old journalist (he’s one of Forbes’ 30 under 30) who wants to change our public school system for the better. Seeking real solutions, he traveled the country visiting several alternative and democratic schools to see what he could learn from them.

You may not agree with Goyal on every point he makes. In the first few chapters, he’s very critical of the current public education system, though there are many who agree with him, at least partially. You only need look at all the parents and teachers protesting against the Common Core, excessive testing, and even homework for the younger grades. Homeschooling, as well, is becoming more mainstream, but this is still a small percentage of the U.S. student population.

The best part of Goyal’s book is his in-depth look at democratic schools. A democratic school is a private school where the students have significant control over their education, and some schools even give them voting rights when administrative or disciplinary issues come up in the school. Goyal believes that public schools should give kids more control over their education as well.

As I was reading this book, I kept thinking, “Goyal, you’re preaching to the choir.” I’m a homeschooling parent because I believe kids should have a more individualized education, and I think they should have a say in what they’re learning. It should be common knowledge that we learn more when we’re interested in what we’re learning.

Still, I’m not as democratic as some of these schools. I make my boys work on reading, math and some other subjects. But unlike public school, I work with my boys to find curriculum and resources that they like, and I don’t rush them. If they need more time with the material, I give it to them. Most of our day is spent pursuing interests we love, and that does make a huge difference.

As Sir Ken Robinson says in his famous Ted Talk, I think schools are killing kids’ creativity, but I also know it’s very hard to cater to individual students when you have 20~30 students to teach at once. I have always wondered how schools could give kids more autonomy and make learning more relevant to their lives and interests. The schools Goyal writes about in his book offer hope.

He writes, “After visiting many democratic and free schools around the country, I have concluded that I had never met more articulate, unorthodox, curious, and happy children before. The students at these schools have a purpose. They are lifelong learners. They love reading books and playing and learning. They can go on for hours about their interests and passions. They can communicate better than most adults can.”

I would like to see more research done on the graduates of these schools, especially those that are working to foster a diverse student body and admit lower income families. I think any kind of school is hard-pressed to help a child who doesn’t have a supportive, loving family at home. While the research and anecdotal evidence is showing that kids who attend these schools benefit, most of them do not come from a disadvantaged background, as Goyal notes in the book. (By the way, there are two democratic schools in Atlanta.)

Goyal knows how hard it is to make changes in our education system. He knows that the majority does not agree with the proposals he is making in the book, yet as he also writes, many parents and teachers are fed up with the system as we know it, and this is promising. If enough parents and teachers stand up, perhaps eventually there will be more positive changes in public schools. But first we must become more educated and aware of the alternatives. Goyal’s book is a good place to start.