Monday, March 9, 2009

Homeschool-to-college brag
and college entry myths debunked

My oldest child, Margaret, received word last week that she has been accepted into the University of Illinois electrical engineering program, which is one of the top engineering schools in the country. She'll be transferring directly into her junior year since she already completed her associate's degree at a junior college.

Of course, I'm proud of her because she's my daughter, and I did have a bit to do with her education. However, the news could not have come at a better time, since I was speaking at the InHome Conference this past weekend. Three of my four sessions focused on college, and there were an absurd number of questions about the negative stigma of attending a community college. I've done talks on this before, and there might be a question or two about that, but they're kind of vague and weak. This weekend's questions were off the charts in specificity and negativity. One woman asked, "I've heard that you are less likely to get into a university if you have an associate's degree, and that you should stop at like 59 credits so you don't get that associates." Okay, that's just wrong. You are actually more likely to get accepted if you have completed an associate's degree -- unless you have a 2.3 GPA or something that makes you look like a less-than-serious student. It is absurd to imply that a community college degree is the kiss of death.

Five years ago, as a 16-year-old with an associate's degree, Margaret was accepted at Illinois College, Simpson College, University of St. Frances, Bradley University, and Northern Illinois University. She ultimately decided not to go at that time because she wasn't sure that she really wanted to get a degree in English. And since she was only 16, I suggested that she take a few more classes at the community college to see if she was more passionate about another subject. She found that passion in her physics classes and realized that most of her classmates were planning to go on to universities and major in engineering. She began exploring engineering careers and realized she'd found an exciting career path.

My daughter's physics professor told her that students with at least a 3.5 have a pretty good chance of getting into U of I's engineering program. I know from my experience at ISU that students with at least a 3.0 have a good chance of getting into ISU's communication program, which is fairly competitive, since they only accept about 50% of the applicants. It varies from school to school and from one program to another within a college, but generally anyone with at least a 3.0 from a junior college should be able to get into a university somewhere. Although U of I might not accept someone into their engineering program with a 3.2, there are other universities with engineering programs where that GPA would be competitive. And it is entirely possible that a student who is not accepted as a freshman would be accepted later as a transfer when he or she has proven his or her ability to do college-level work at a community college.

It's no surprise that many parents this past weekend seemed afraid of making some terrible mistake that would doom their child for life. That's part of the parental job description, and I used to have that same fear. However, sending your child to a community college would rarely turn out to be a mistake. (I never say never.) Every child is an individual, and parents should help their child choose a college based upon many things, so many that I can't address them all in this post. In fact, that's a post for another day entirely. For today, I'm proud that Margaret will be going to U of I to get an engineering degree since it is one of the top schools in the country (some say the top), but I'm thrilled that she finally found something that she's passionate about!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Individualized instruction

Seems like I say this a lot, but it is true that as homeschoolers we can do all the things that professional educators know are best practices. A few months ago, I mentioned the science teacher who likes to take his kids out into the woods to experience nature for 20 minutes! As homeschoolers, we can do that for hours -- and we can do it every day if we want. One of the other big strengths of homeschooling is that we are able to provide individualized instruction for our children. This is something that the pros know they need to do, and they are continually trying to figure out how to deliver individual instruction to 20 or 30 kids in a classroom.

Jim Bower, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas and the CEO of the virtual world Whyville, recently explained at an educator's conference:

We tend to learn best through hands-on experiences, he explained--by trying things ourselves and taking ownership of our own learning, rather than passively receiving information from another source. But until the internet came along, we haven't had a scalable way to deliver this kind of experience to every student.

Before the internet, Bower said, the two most important developments from an educational perspective were the invention of the printing press and the creation of a university system. But both of these developments were "push" operations, he said--meaning they pushed information out to students, rather than letting students experience learning for themselves.

I agree with Bower, but after spending time teaching in three different public high schools over the past few months, I can tell you that most schools are not even close to giving kids the kind of education that is necessary and possible in the World Wide Web. Almost zero students have heard of a blog, Twitter, Squidoo, or any other Web 2.0 tools and programs. This semester I surveyed my high school seniors and learned that most of them spend very little time online, and almost 100% of that time is spent on either Facebook or MySpace.

Most schools have a single computer lab, but little time is spent in there. This is where homeschooling parents can easily give their children a better education than the public schools can. If you're reading this blog, you are already more Internet literate than a lot of public school teachers. So, don't be shy about searching the net and looking for learning opportunities for your children, and let your children look for information on subjects that interest them. If you're new to this blog, read some of the older posts about how blogging can improve kids' writing or how you can learn critical thinking skills through the Internet.

As I said, I totally agree with Bower's ideas that the Internet can be used to deliver individualized content to students, but it will not happen if kids are getting half an hour per week on a computer. Sadly, most districts don't have enough money to allow students more time online. And Bower even admits in the article, "'We haven't figured out how to leverage Web 2.0 yet' in schools." Well, while the school districts are still trying to figure that out, homeschooling parents can continue delivering the best possible education to their children.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Educate your kids and save the world with worms

Okay, I'm exaggerating about saving the world -- but maybe not too much. After nearly ten years of thinking about it, I am finally a worm farmer. We've had a compost bin for seven years, and we have compost piles all over our farm, but vermicompost is even richer than what you can make in a regular compost bin, so I finally took the plunge. Monday I attended a composting seminar, and at the end of the day I attended a session where we made our own bin and got our worms. I wrote about it on my farm blog.

I've always thought this would make a great homeschool project, and even apartment dwellers can do it. In fact, they should do it, because not only is it educational, but it will use up all of their kitchen scraps and keep them out of landfills. Worms will even eat things that you shouldn't put in a regular compost bin, like gravy and potato salad, which have too much fat in them for traditional composting. Then the vermicompost can be used to fertilize container plants, such as tomatoes and peppers grown organically in front of a sunny window or on a patio.

Now, what about saving the world? Garbage is one of the biggest problems we have facing our society -- really. When I was a reporter in the Chicago burbs, it was one of those topics that cities were always talking about. Landfills fill up, and no one wants a stinky landfill in their backyard, so municipalities are paying more for having their garbage hauled farther away. Solutions like worm bins can help our society.

But who wants a stinky worm bin in their apartment? Worms need oxygen, and as long as your bin has plenty of oxygen, it won't stink. It's an aerobic process, and if your worm bin or traditional compost bin starts to stink, it means you're heading into an anaerobic situation.

And, about saving the world -- it really isn't an exageration to say that educating your kids could save the world someday. It is entirely possible that some homeschooled kid with a worm bin could grow up to figure out a permanent and earth-friendly solution to all of our garbage problems.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

InHome Conference 2009

The annual InHome Conference will be held March 5 to 7, at Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, IL. Registration is available on-line now.

Katherine and I will be presenting two sessions together. In Bringing Science to Life, we'll talk about many of the things we do that make life science practical. This will be geared to parents with kids of all ages, and we'll have lots of examples of how kids can learn science in the real world, whether you live in an apartment in Chicago or the middle of nowhere.

In Next Step: Community College, Katherine will talk about her first year at a community college, and I'll talk about the experiences of my other children as students at a community college, as well as my experience teaching at a community college.

Katherine and I will each be part of a panel discussion on college and homeschoolers. I'll be on the parent panel, and Katherine will be on a panel for teens. The point of these sessions is mostly to give the audience members an opportunity to ask whatever burning questions they might have about college.

I'll be presenting Preparing for College, where I talk about what your children need to know to succeed in college, from my dual-perspective as a college instuctor and a homeschool mom. I'll talk about the things that my college students are most lacking, as well as what presented challenges when my own homeschooled children started college.

If you're able to attend, please be sure to introduce yourself to us!

Monday, December 1, 2008

What homeschooling is not

Homeschooling is not simply school at home. It is the term for when parents take control of their children's education, from choosing curriculum (or not) to grading (or not). When we started homeschooling in the 80s or 90s or whenever our children started learning, the definition of homeschooling seemed obvious. However, more public schools are offering virtual schools, and some private schools and private companies are starting to offer "school at home" via computers and the Internet. Some people are mistakenly calling this homeschooling, and this topic just keeps getting hotter and hotter.

Home Education Magazine Editor Helen Hegener has a very thorough discussion of the difference -- and why it's important -- on her latest blog entry.

For the public school view on the growth of virtual schooling, you can check out this article. And for more on the benefits of virtual schools, check out this article. The funny thing about that last one is that people are actually listing some of the same benefits for virtual school as we've been listing for homeschools for decades. Even the socialization issue is addressed -- and it's not a problem. Interesting double standard!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Blogging for kids

I recently rediscovered a blog that I started when I was in graduate school. It was this particular blog entry that caused me to encourage my youngest to start her own blog, Science on the Farm. Although she doesn't post as much now as she did originally, it provided her with a great opportunity to write for publication -- in other words, she was writing for an audience, rather than just her mom or her teacher. One of my frustrations as a college instructor is conveying to students that they have to think about their audience when they are writing or speaking. They have spent their entire lives writing papers for a single person -- the teacher -- so the concept of an audience is foreign to them.

Blogs are a great way for kids to get experience writing, of course, but they also provide a way for kids to show off their photography, which is part of a well-rounded fine arts curriculum.

Starting a blog is simple, and it's free! Another benefit is that it provides something that the relatives can peruse for reassurance that your child is not illiterate. The irony is that most people over 30 are so web-illiterate that they will likely think your child is a computer genius for being able to publish a blog on the web. So, if you have particularly pushy in-laws, a blog could have multiple benefits.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thinking vs. testing

Like most people, I love it when I find kindred spirits -- you know, those people with whom you agree. Finding this article came at a good time for me. I am down about some of my college students, so it's especially nice to find a person -- a Harvard person, no less -- who voiced many of my opinions about what schools need to be teaching and doing.

In Seven skills students desperately need, author Meris Stansbury talks about a keynote address delivered by Harvard's Tony Wagner in which he says that while schools may be successfully teaching to the test, kids are leaving schools without the survival skills that they need for the real world. Bravo! My sentiments, exactly! Wagner relates how he has visited schools where students just wait for the teacher or a star student to give them the answers -- even if a Bunsen burner is smoking!

In my student evaluations, it is not uncommon for someone to write something along these lines ... "When we ask you a question, you should just answer it. Don't ask us a question." And a few weeks ago, when I passed out an exam to my students, I told them not to get caught up in whether to say yes, no, or maybe in response to an essay question, because I would be grading them on the "why" behind the yes, no, or maybe. Several students groaned in agony. Ever since I started teaching college more than two years ago, I have noticed that students do not like to think. "Just tell us the answer!" is written all over their faces. I am constantly telling them that to succeed in college and in life, they have to think! They can't just memorize all the right answers, because usually there is not a single right answer.

One of the reasons that schools fail is because they are trying to get students to memorize a bunch of stuff that they will forget as soon as they take the test. The emphasis is on "knowing" the right answer, rather than critically thinking to figure out what one answer might be. Whether I am at home or in a classroom, I rarely give a straightforward answer to a child's or student's query, because no one should look at me as the expert on everything. Students should realize that they can figure out the answer on their own. One of the my favorite things as an unschooling mom was to hear my young children talk about how they taught themselves to do something.

When people ask me if I think that the state should have oversite of homeschooled students, I quickly respond no. Why? Because no doubt that would include testing, and then homeschooling parents would start making the same mistake that public school teachers are forced to make -- teaching to the test. Educators know that teaching to the test ultimately fails students, because it doesn't teach them to think. But it is legislators, not educators, who make the laws. They want quantitative proof that students know something. And I suppose they get proof that students know something -- but standardized tests do not prove that students can think.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Math at Christmas

Three years ago, I got this brilliant idea to make lots of cookies in November, so that in December we'd have plenty for guests. It became Katherine's job (then 12 years old) to double all of the cookie recipes (multiply fractions) and make them. When they're made, we eat half, and we put the other half in the freezer. Today, I started our Christmas baking for this year. I started with a favorite of mine -- Scottish shortbread.

To see my recipe, check my other blog.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Math field trips

My 15-year-old daughter wants to go clothes shopping, and there are a couple things she wants from a catalog. So, here's the deal ... she can only get things on sale, and she has to figure out what each one will cost:
  • a jean jacket is normally $39.99, but it's 40% off
  • a corduroy jacket is normally $44.99, but it's 30% off
  • a pair of boots are $79.99, but they're 25% off
I've been doing this for years in the grocery store. I have my children figure out which product is cheaper, so they have to do the math to figure out the per-ounce cost. Now, you might say that many stores have this information on the shelf tag, but my children didn't know that when they were younger. :) Also, some stores complicate things by putting the per-ounce price on one item and the per-pound price on a competing product.

Grocery shopping is also a good time to teach rounding. If I'm in a store that accepts cash only, I still have my children keep track of my total. I'm not going to ask them to do the exact math for every single item, so I have them round the prices to the nearest dollar, so they can easily keep track in their heads.

The point is that math in the real world is way more interesting than worksheets. What ideas have worked for your families?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Is college worth it?

In Reconsidering the Value of College, Cathy Arnst quotes several recent studies and articles about students who are not prepared and not intelligent enough to succeed in college. The news isn't much better for the students who do succeed. After acquiring tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, they wind up in jobs that do not even require a college degree. We probably all know someone who is overqualified for a job. I know someone with a geology degree who works at Wal-Mart. I know another person with a public relations degree who tends bar and another with a journalism degree who works in a women's clothing store. The list goes on and on.

Arnst quotes a Chronicle of Higher Education article by Marty Nemko. He starts with this story:

Among my saddest moments as a career counselor is when I hear a story like this: "I wasn't a good student in high school, but I wanted to prove that I can get a college diploma. I'd be the first one in my family to do it. But it's been five years and $80,000, and I still have 45 credits to go."

Colleges are businesses, and like most businesses, they have done a great job of "selling" their product. Americans believe that a college degree is required for success as much as they believe the sun will rise tomorrow. Even parents who make six figures a year without a college degree insist that their children go to college. Nemko goes on to say:

Among high-school students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their classes, and whose first institutions were four-year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later.

These students sit in my classes every semester, and I try to tell some of them that they should not be there. They don't want to be there, and I try to let them know that it's okay to leave. They didn't enjoy high school, and they couldn't wait to graduate, and now they find themselves stuck in a world that they have never liked.

As a homeschooler, most parents hear the question, "But how will your child be able to go to college without a high school diploma?" Although many, many homeschooled kids do get accepted at top universities across the country, it's a shame that so many people measure success by whether or not a person can be accepted into a college. And if you read farther into the Nemko article, you'll see that it really is not that difficult to get accepted into a college somewhere. Nemko said that only 23% of the students who took the ACT in 2007 were ready for college-level work -- yet colleges accept them.

For almost two decades I've been saying, "Homeschooled kids have no problem getting accepted by colleges," but I should have been saying, "College is not synonymous with success." Bill Gates (Microsoft) is a college drop-out, as well as Michael Dell (Dell) and Steve Jobs (Apple). When I was a reporter in Kane County, IL, I interviewed the Man of the Year about ten years ago, and he had been kicked out of high school about 20 years earlier. He went on to start working in construction and to start his own construction company, and before he was 40, he was successful both financially and socially. He was a well-respected member of the community because he was a fair and honest business owner, and he had completed many construction projects in the county that were well done and less expensive than his competitors. Such stories are not all that unusual.

If people sat down and started making a list of people they know with college degrees and those without, they'd see that the college degree does not equate success. I used to know a mortgage lender who complained to me one day that she couldn't get a loan approved for a physician because he handled his money so badly -- $350,000 a year. But most people don't think. They just follow the script: go to school, get good grades, go to college, become a success. There just isn't a recipe for success that is so simple.

Since my children are all in college now, I probably won't be hearing the "what about college" question very often, but if I do, I think I'll be less defensive about their ability to get into college and simply tell them that my goal in homeschooling my children was not necessarily to get them into college. My goal was for them to find a passion for learning and to follow their passion, regardless of whether that led them to a college or a cosmetology school or a job in retail.