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.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Time for recess!

If the state of Illinois is to be taken seriously, physical development and health are a required part of our curriculum, so here's my two cents on that subject this fall. A friend sent me a link to this article about the importance of Vitamin D. I first read about Vitamin D about four years ago when I thought I might have fibromyalgia. At that time, I learned that many people who are deficient in Vitamin D will exhibit many of the symptoms of fibromyalgia. It was winter, which meant not enough sun in Illinois to get enough sunshine for proper Vitamin D synthesis, so I started taking a D supplement, and most of my symptoms disappeared. Since then, I've been spending more time outside in the summer and not using sunscreen unless I know I'll be out long enough to get burned.

So, other than educating our children about Vitamin D, what does this have to do with homeschooling? Quite simply, we need to make sure our kids get enough sunshine. As I read several years ago, the RDA for D supplementation was established more than half a century ago when people spent lots of time outside, and it was only established at a level to avoid rickets. As this new article points out, D-deficiency has now been linked to many diseases including several types of cancer. D is not present in any great amount in foods, which is why milk is fortified with D, although it is fortified at a level that scientists now know is not nearly enough. Vitamin D deficiency is becoming a real problem. Here are a few reasons why:

“The tendencies of people to live in cities where tall buildings block adequate sunlight from reaching the ground, to spend most of their time indoors, to use synthetic sunscreens that block ultraviolet rays, and to live in geographical regions of the world that do not receive adequate sunlight all contribute to the inability of the skin to biosynthesize sufficient amounts of vitamin D.”

To get enough Vitamin D, we need to spend time outside with our skin exposed to the sun, or take supplements -- 2,000 IU, according to the UC researcher, which is 10 times what the US government still says we need. Of course, when it comes to the sun, we need balance. With the current awareness of skin cancer risks, many people avoid the sun at all costs. I understand this, since my husband is a skin cancer survivor, but moderation is the key. I've read quotes from some dermatologists who get very angry about people "baking" in the sun. In another article, I read that you only need about 15 minutes of daily exposure on your face and arms to get enough D, so that's a far cry from baking or broiling or burning.

So, not only is physical education an important part of your child's overall education, but getting exercise outside in the sun is important for good health as well.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Making gifts

Just found this great blog post by another homeschooler who talked about making gifts for the holidays. We had already decided to do this, mostly knitting socks and hats for family members, but this post has a long list of gifts you can make this holiday season.

Of course, art is an important part of any education, and the thing I loved about homeschooling is that I was never overrun with toilet-paper-tube Christmas trees and other garbage-art from public school art classes. When homeschooling, you can provide the one-on-one attention needed to teach your children useful arts, such as knitting, crocheting, quilting, spinning, sewing, painting, photography, etc. Art is not gluing the teacher's cut-out Christmas tree onto a toilet-paper tube that you have painted green. It is about creating your own beautiful work. In fact, my daughters have both gone far beyond me in their spinning and needlework skills. I only know how to knit fairly simple designs, but both of my daughters have taught themselves to crochet, and they even create their own designs, including mittens, socks, and hats, which are all items I've never created.

Are any of you going to make holiday gifts this year?

Monday, October 6, 2008

The TV choice

Television is one of those things that causes a great debate among unschoolers. While some don't even own a television, others believe that there is no such thing as too much television. They completely trust that their children will watch whatever they need and that restricting television causes children to binge-watch whenever they get a chance. I've sometimes found myself to be the only moderate in the midst of such a debate, but today I found this blog, and the author sounds a lot like myself. He grew up a total addict but now tries to foster a more moderate viewing philosophy.

I've heard some parents say that they tried unschooling, but it didn't work for them because all their children did was watch cartoons all day. While some unschoolers would give an unqualified thumbs up to that practice, I would ask a few questions and suggest that they not throw out the baby (unschooling) with the bathwater (TV).

First, exactly how many hours are we talking about? Some parents might mean all afternoon when they say "all the time," while others might mean every waking hour. All afternoon is less troubling than every waking hour.

Second, what type of activities does the child have available other than television? Many kids today do not have a lot of options if they live in the city if their parents believe that unschooling means a total hands-off approach. They need parents to take them places, such as the library, museums, and parks. One woman asked if it was okay that her four-year-old son watched the same violent video game over and over again. After a bit of discussion, I learned that the family only owned that one video game. The child had no other options for video games. Still, I would not want a child that age to play any video game for an extended period of time, because they should be outside running around, getting exercise, and breathing fresh air.

There is all kinds of research available on the problems with watching too much television, such as obesity and lower academic performance. Television, like many things, is okay in moderation, but a steady diet of TV, like a steady diet of potato chips and candy, is not good for you. On the blog mentioned earlier, the author talks about his family's viewing habits. I personally don't watch any television, but I do watch a movie on DVD once a week. We don't have cable or a dish, but we subscribe to Netflix, which means the family doesn't watch more than three or four movies a week. Some members of my family do watch a couple of TV shows every week through the Internet.

I don't think that television is inherently bad. Indeed, I think there are great ways it can be used. Three years ago, my youngest child and I spent autumn watching all of the PBS House shows -- Frontier House, 1900 House, Colonial House, Manor House, etc. They're reality shows where people go back in time to live like people in a particular era, and it was the most fun history lesson imaginable. We learned so much and were very entertained in the process. It caused us to talk about how we would respond to living in such conditions, and ultimately we decided that although the clothing was pretty cool, we really like having toilet paper and indoor plumbing!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Learning to write; Preparing for college

This little statistic came as no surprise to me. In Colleges spend billions to prep freshman, the author states,

... one-third of American college students have to enroll in remedial classes. The bill to colleges and taxpayers for trying to bring them up to speed on material they were supposed to learn in high school comes to between $2.3 billion and $2.9 billion annually.

If you doubt this statistic, just check the schedule of available classes at community colleges. There are dozens of remedial classes taught every semester in math and English. I know high schools are not preparing students for college because I have students in my college classes every semester who cannot write a complete sentence. This article tells the unfortunate -- but not uncommon -- story of one young lady:

Christina Jeronimo was an "A" student in high school English, but was placed in a remedial course when she arrived at Long Beach Community College in California. The course was valuable in some ways but frustrating and time-consuming. Now in her third year of community college, she'd hoped to transfer to UCLA by now.

Like many college students, she wishes she'd been worked a little harder in high school.

"There's a gap," said Jeronimo, who hopes to study psychology. "The demands of the high school teachers aren't as great as the demands for college. Sometimes they just baby us."

I have had students who were shocked to receive an F on their first paper, because they were A students in high school. Sometimes, they were even in the honors program. These are smart kids, but they were stuck in a system that had unqualified teachers working in an archaic system. When it comes to writing, no one is going to learn to write unless they read and write a lot! They do not learn to write by diagramming sentences or labeling nouns and verbs -- but it is so much easier to grade worksheets instead of essays.

A teacher in a class of 30-40 students (times five classes a day) does not have the time to provide feedback on the amount of writing that most kids need to do in order to become proficient writers. It really does not matter what kind of writing they do -- they can write movie reviews, letters to Grandma, or short stories about their favorite subject. (My youngest has written dozens of stories about horses.) The point is that kids have to write!

And they have to read, so they can see good writing. If they want to read Harry Potter 15 times, that's great! So-called "reading books" are one of the things I blame for so many kids hating reading. As every agent and editor in NYC will tell you -- publishing is a very subjective business. Most best sellers are rejected dozens of times before an agent agrees to represent a book, and then it is usually rejected even more before a publisher buys it. That's because not everyone loves even the most popular books. Between my three children, the only thing that all of them like is Harry Potter. Otherwise, they can't even agree on a genre. My oldest loves fiction; my middle child likes non-fiction books about movies; my youngest reads fiction and non-fiction, as long as the subject is animals.

All of them became competent writers with almost no help from me. They wrote things that interested them and excited them. I never told them to write anything, and yet they wrote prolifically. They wrote fan fiction, forum posts, short stories, and novels. They wrote because they loved the subjects, and they wanted to share their thoughts with other people. Just like playing the piano or shooting hoops, the more you do it, the better you get!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Need for science education

As I've written before, homeschoolers are in a perfect position to provide the best science education for their children, because we can take our kids out into the field and do things with them that make science fun and interesting! My daughter who blogs at Science on the Farm is taking her first college science class this semester, and she already said that she can see why most students say they "hate" science. There is a lot of memorization, and without the practical background, it seems pointless and boring. Here's a quote that pretty much sums up a great article on the need for better science education. (STEM is an achronym for science, technology, engineering, and math.)

"What is most dramatic about this survey is the extent to which the Fortune [1000] executives speak with one unequivocal voice on these issues," said Attila Molnar, president and CEO of Bayer Corp. "Almost without exception, they overwhelmingly recognize this country's great need to tap the potential of the entire STEM talent pool, and the importance of doing so at every point on the development continuum--beginning in elementary school with high-quality, hands-on, inquiry-based science education, through college where STEM talent is refined and recruited, and then into the workplace where it must be further nurtured and encouraged."

Yes -- hands-on, inquiry-based science education -- not memorizing anatomy charts and periodic table of the elements. The people in education know what we need, and the executives in businesses know what they need, but the current educational system is not equipped to provide it.

And I especially liked one of the comments posted by a reader:
Teaching "what" to think (STEM content) is insufficient; they also need to learn "how" to think. Too many of our best minds are crammed full of content but don't know how to make the most of the knowledge. We need to push critical thinking, creative thinking, and systems thinking in the curricula even before the STEM (or any other technical field, for that matter) content. It's like having a huge database but no program.

Again, kids need to be out in the field, getting dirty, doing stuff, rather than sitting in a classroom memorizing a bunch of stuff. Even if you live in an apartment without a yard, you can grow plants, keep an aquarium, or have a couple of pet mice. And you can head out to nature preserves, the zoo, and museums. Most good science teachers would do this if only they could, because they know this is how kids learn science. But alas the schools can't afford field trips every week for their students.

Research on learning

Here is a bit of interesting research.
ScienceDaily (2008-09-27) -- Eight-year-old children have a radically different learning strategy from twelve-year-olds. Eight-year-olds learn primarily from positive feedback, whereas negative feedback scarcely causes any alarm bells to ring. Twelve-year-olds are better able to process negative feedback, and use it to learn from their mistakes. The switch in learning strategy can be seen in the brain areas responsible for cognitive control.
For the whole story, click here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What do teachers know that parents don't know?

Here is a blog written by a first-year teacher in New York City with 42 fifth graders in a single class!

In 1985, I started grad school at Brown University to earn a master of arts in teaching high school English. I quit at the end of the fall semester. Although I loved everything I learned in the classes at Brown, my time in a Rhode Island public high school was less than positive. In fact, it was my first step towards homeschooling, even though I was not even married at the time. When people tell me they can't homeschool because they don't know how to teach their child, I tell them that a degree in education doesn't teach you to teach -- it teaches you crowd control. It was the hardest thing I had to do in student teaching, and it remains the most challenging part of teaching for most teachers. It is probably the biggest reason that children need to spend an hour on a topic that they could easily learn in five or ten minutes.

And if you think this teacher's experience is unusual, just read the comments. Most of them are from teachers who tell her that they've had similar experiences.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Elementary math

I'm in the mood for Monopoly. You know the game ... Park Place and Boardwalk, pass go and collect $200. We're big Monopoly fans here. It's one of the many ways my children learned math when they were little: counting money, adding, subtracting, buying, selling, and budgeting. Although my children grew up with the traditional Monopoly, today we own four different Monopoly sets: the original, the Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition, the Star Wars edition, and Gardenopoly, where you go to "weeding" instead of jail, and you get to grow all sorts of plants and build greenhouses. There is also a Farmopoly, which I am tempted to buy, but seriously, how many different Monopoly games does one family need?

My point today is brief ... if you have an elementary aged child, skip the math worksheets and buy a few Monopoly games. It will be way more fun for you and your child, and he or she will learn math in the "real" world.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The real thing

My college students are in the midst of a critical thinking exercise. They are supposed to visit three Web sites and decide whether or not they are credible.
Being the eternal optimist, in every class and in every semester, I eagerly await their posts on the discussion board online. And every year I am frustrated and disappointed. I've been sitting at my computer this morning, reading their responses and thinking about how I'm going to respond. And in so many cases, I find myself saying, "You're not in high school anymore." For so many of them, the goal is not learning -- the goal is a grade. Some have a goal of A, and some have a goal of C or even D. In this critical thinking exercise, most of them are just throwing an answer against the Cyberwall to see what sticks.

I've told them that obviously, we know men can't get pregnant, but I want them to look at the site like an alien. If you don't know men can't get pregnant, how would you determine that this site is a fake? I do this because when they choose a speech topic, they will be entering a foreign world where they don't know what is or is not possible. There will be thousands of sources out there from which to choose. Some will be good; some will be biased; some will be wrong. They need to have critical thinking skills to determine whether a site is credible or not. Every semester I have students lose points on their speeches because they use sites that are not credible. So many of them scoff at my warning and saying, "Well, it's just common sense." Here are a couple of the responses:

I just can't bring myself to believe this. Although it does have newspaper articles and other credible sources, I just can't believe it.

The site is not credible because the live vital signs only show results and no proof that a man is actually hooked up to the machines.
Students #1 is a perfect example of someone who will probably use sources that are not credible. She's in a hurry and didn't take the time to actually click on those links to see if they really do lead to the "credible" sources that she trusts.

Student #2 is thinking skeptically, not critically. How could any website prove what he is suggesting? If it were following a woman's pregnancy, how could they prove that it's real?

This is actually an easy site to debunk. If you click on any of the links, you see that they do not go to stories about the pregnant man; the links just go to the home page of those sites. Also, there is no physical address or phone number for the medical center. You can't even figure out what state it's in. If students only took the time to google "pregnant man" or "Dwayne Medical Center," they'd find other sites that say it is not credible. But most students don't think about double-checking their sources.

The DHMO site is a perfect example of how someone can make something look really bad. Everything on that site is absolutely true. But it is a perfect example of bias. So many students think that biased = wrong. Although DHMO does all of those horrible things, it is also absolutely essential for life. As they say in advertising, the truth is irrelevant -- what's imortant is what people believe! Don't be too quick to say that no one would really make something good sound so bad. The government has done exactly that with raw milk. While raw milk has many health benefits, the government has banned it or severely restricted it in many states because big business has convinced them it is just as dangerous as DHMO. By the way, DHMO is water, and as a result of this site, some people have tried to have it banned -- until they learned that it is water.

The skunk site is credible, and a few students pointed out some good things about it, so today I'll be ending that discussion, and I'll add another one: The Lovenstein Institute. That website was created as a result of a hoax email sent out in 2001 saying that Bush had the lowest IQ of any president ever to be elected, according to the Lovenstein Institute. Today, they throw all sorts of interesting stuff up there and mix it with legitimate news, which makes it a little harder to decipher. Since no one has offered any good answers to the DHMO or male pregnancy discussions, I'll leave those up and ask students to continue responding.

This is what I'll be telling my students ... This is the real world. If you're a doctor, you have to diagnose your patients' illness or condition. If you're a lawyer, you have to figure out the best strategy for defending your client. If you're a physical therapist, you have to figure out the best treatment for your patient. If you're a teacher, you have to figure out what works and what doesn't work with your students. If you're an advertising executive, you have to figure out what will sell your products. You can't just throw something out there and wait for someone else to give you the "right" answer. In real life, no one knows the right answer most of the time. You have to use your education and training and critical thinking skills to figure out the best answer. If you choose the wrong answer, your patient might die, your client might go to jail, your students might not learn, your company might go bankrupt. That's the real world. You don't get grades in the real world. You have to think and make decisions, and if you're wrong, the consequences can be much worse than an F.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Science in the real world

When homeschoolers see me speak or first encounter something I've read, they might assume that I'm a science or math professional. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, I write and speak about math and science a lot more than writing -- I am a writer -- because I had such a hard time with math and science in school. Although my science grades were more consistent than math -- math fluctuated from As to Ds, while I almost always had Bs in science -- I struggled to earn those Bs. Teaching science in the classroom is as bad as trying to teach writing through sentence diagramming. Kids can't learn science without living science. My youngest has a blog where she writes about Science on the Farm. While most people don't have a 32-acre classroom in their backyard, they do have plenty of places to study science:
  • Even a small backyard has plenty of opportunitites to study science. Get a bird feeder and a bird guide for your state and start checking off your visitors.
  • Ask your child to help you decide which plants to put in your flower gardens. Does it need shade or sun? How many hours of sun does each area of your yard get in a typical summer day? How much water does the plant need? What type of soil?
  • Natural areas, such as parks and recreational areas have lots of plants and animals.
  • An aquarium is an ecosystem unto itself and provides great opportunities for kids to learn about aquatic animals and plants.
  • Zoos have programs for kids, such as the Junior Zookeeper program at the zoo in Bloomington, IL.

These are just a few ideas. The most important thing for parents to know is that science is one of the easiest things for kids to learn without textbooks. And having a strong foundation of practical science can make it easier for kids when they go into the college science classroom. When they start seeing all of those scientific names, they have a framework to make it all fit, rather than just trying to memorize a bunch of meaningless facts and names.

What surprises a lot of homeschoolers is that most public school teachers would be doing what we do if they were allowed to do it. Here's a post by a public school teacher in Alaska. He talks about what a positive experience it was to take his students into the woods for 20 minutes. We can take our kids into the great outdoors for hours. But it's a big deal for a public school teacher to do something like this for 20 minutes, because it takes away from the time they need to spend teaching kids what they need to know to pass the standardized tests.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

How do you define success?

A lot of people get caught up in the question of success ... will my child be successful if we homeschool? Well, it's tough to be less successful than the public schools. My last post talked about how some public school graduates are incapable of critical thinking. But the sadder half of that equation are the kids who never graduate from high school. According to, the high school graduation rate for 2005 was 68.8% in the United States. It varied tremendously from state to state with New Jersey having 87.6% graduation rate and Nevada having only 49.1% of entering ninth graders completing high school. If high school graduation is your criteria, then I have been successful with all three of my children, since they have all started college. I don't think high school graduation is a huge hurdle for most homeschoolers.

What about success in college? HigherEdInfo says that only 29.1% of students at community college receive their associate degree within three years. My oldest daughter did receive her first associate degree within three years, so she succeeded. My son did not finish an associate degree within three years, but then that was never his goal. He just wanted to take a class or two for fun. So, now we are getting into a gray area ... how do you define success? Was he not successful?

We have become a multiple choice society, and I can't help but believe that it comes from the fact that virtually all of us went to public schools, where answers to every question were either A, B, C, D, or E.

How do you become a success in America?
A. Get good grades in school
B. Graduate from high school
C. Graduate from college
D. Homeschool
E. A, B, and C

Most people choose E without question. Every semester, I've had at least one student confess to me that she didn't want to be in college. Usually several students tell me this every semester. But, they are "forced" to go to college by their parents. When I ask them what interests them, they either say that they don't know, or they want to do something that does not require a college degree. In May, one girl told me she wanted to be a personal trainer like her dad, who didn't have a college degree and was quite successful. But her dad believed a college degree was absolutely essential for his daughter to be successful.

Many of those students will not be graduating. With no personal motivation to be there and no goals, they don't try very hard, and many of them wind up on academic probation at the end of their first semester. They fail. But I'm not saying they fail because they flunk out of college. I'm saying they fail because they waste a year of their life following someone else's path, rather than exploring or moving towards their personal goals.

My daughter started college at age 13 and received her first associate degree at age 16. Although she was accepted into five universities to complete her bachelor's degree, she decided to stay at the community college to continue exploring different subject areas. After earning two more associate degrees and still not being sure what she wanted to pursue for her bachelor's, I suggested that she take off a couple years and explore the real world. She worked in retail for a year and a half, which became a very frustrating time for her because so many friends were wringing their hands about her impending poverty in life. A few good friends, who knew her well, were not concerned at all. We knew that she was highly motivated and a perfectionist, and she would find the path that was right for her.

When she started the job, she loved it as she was learning how to do everything. Once she'd mastered her job, she started to hate it. She applied for a management position, and she was promoted. She loved it as she was learning to do everything. Once she'd mastered that job, she started to hate it. Do you see a trend here? She did. She learned something very valuable about herself -- something she would have never learned in school. It was something I knew, but it was something she had to learn for herself. She needs a job that can't be learned in a few weeks or a couple months. She needs something that constantly challenges her mind.

I don't define success with something simplistic like a college degree or a high-paying job. Success is not reached by following a straight line from high school to college to Wall Street. Success is not a destination. It's a journey up and down winding roads and across wide open fields. It's a journey that never ends as long as you're motivated to keep going.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Testing, testing

One of the things that seems to surprise people about homeschooling in Illinois is that our children don't have to be tested. For the past year, if someone mentions standardized testing to me, they get to hear the story of Plagiarism Girl, a student in my freshman speech class in the fall of 2007.

PG was a graduate of the Chicago Public Schools. She screwed up every single assignment all semester. For one of her speeches, she read seven minutes, word for word, from a website and did not understand why that was wrong. I spent an hour with this girl explaining to her in every way imaginable why she could not read from someone's website. She thought that she was not guilty of plagiarism since she said, "According to ..." at the beginning. When I said that would have been okay for quoting a sentence or two, she said, "Well, it was his biography." So what? For an hour, I explained plagiarism, fair use, copyright laws, and everything else I could think of that was remotely related. PG truly had no understanding that she had done anything wrong.

On the assignment prior to this one, she was supposed to watch a presidential tv ad from and write a short paper that connected the ad to a communication concept we'd studied in class, such as ethics of communication. I could not figure out which ad or which concept her paper was about. Ultimately, I discovered that PG hadn't watched an ad -- she had merely summarized the introductory material about the Bush vs. Clinton race. She wrote that everyone was blaming Clinton for the bad economy and that people hid signs in the Clinton campaign headquarters saying, "It's the economy, stupid." I asked her how the whole country could have been blaming Clinton (the governor of Arkansas) for the bad economy, and she said she didn't know. I asked her if she knew what the word, "conspicuous" meant, and she didn't know. Based on what she wrote, it looked like she thought it meant "hidden." The website actually said that signs were posted conspicuously around the headquarters.

The other stories get more complicated, but the bottom line is that PG was completely incapable of critical thinking. The most shocking thing about this story to most people is that this girl passed my class. How on earth could she have passed when she blew every single assignment, every paper, and every speech? She passed the tests, which were multiple choice. When she had a limited number of options available, she could choose the right answer most of the time. But life is not a multiple choice test. Life is filled with open-ended questions. Children need to learn how to think -- not take multiple choice tests.

Last week, I started my third year of teaching a freshman-level college class. The college requires that students have a mid-term and a final exam in this class, which is required for all students. Most professors use multiple choice because it's easier to grade. Students respond on forms that can be computer graded, which is quick and easy. All standardized tests are multiple choice, and those tests are the way we decide whether or not the schools are doing their jobs. While PG's story is very dramatic, she is not the only student I've had who is completely incapable of critical thinking. The majority of students cannot critically think.

One problem that happens over and over again ... When we talk about research, I have students look at some websites and tell me why they are or are not legitimate. Many students visit and say that it's legitimate because it's a dot-org site, and all of those are credible. The funny thing about that site is that every single word is true. The site is maintained by a man who thinks that we need better critical thinkers, and it shows how you can make something sound really bad -- without ever telling a lie.

On the flip side, I've had some students tell me that no dot-com site can be trusted because they're all just trying to sell something. These kids are NOT critical thinkers. They view life as a series of multiple choice tests. Dot-org is true; dot-com is false. When asked to visit this site on male pregnancy, I tell them to pretend they are from another planet and don't know that men can't get pregnant. Then tell me how you know this site is not legitimate. The majority of students can't figure it out and admit that if they were an alien, they would find the site credible. My point is that throughout their lives they will be looking on the Internet for information, and they will be looking for information because they are like that alien -- they don't know which information is right or wrong, so they need to be able to evaluate the source.

Schools worked great in the 19th century when the country was moving into the industrial age, when our biggest need was for good little worker bees in the factories. Today is a completely different world though, and we need people who can think and solve problems. Kids don't learn that stuff through multiple choice tests.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Money -- and beyond 4th grade math

When I was in school, I remember doing worksheets that had pictures of coins. This was how the educators thought we should learn about money. I think my father had a better idea. He talked to me about money, gave me money, and told me what it was worth. A penny was a piece of bubble gum, and a dime was a can of Coke. When I was in fourth or fifth grade, the price of a Coke went up to 15 cents. I didn't mind the worksheets though. Since I knew how to count money, they were an easy A.

When my oldest was six years old, we were having a garage sale. I thought this would be a great time for her to learn to count money. Wrong. She already knew how to count money. I had never spent any time teaching her. She had learned it through living in a world that uses money.

When my children were around 7, 10, and 13, they decided they wanted an allowance. My husband and I told them they could present us with their argument at a meeting that would be held in a couple of days, so they could prepare. It was a very impressive presentation, which included a detailed plan about payments, savings, and spending.

Each child would receive a weekly allowance equaling one dollar per year of the child's age. For example, the seven-year-old would get $7 a week, and so on. Half of the allowance would be theirs to spend on whatever they wanted, and half of it would be put into a savings account to save for big-ticket items that would be discussed with us parents before purchasing. They agreed that they would buy everything they "wanted," and we parents would continue buying things they "needed." For example, each child needed a pair of play shoes and a pair of dress shoes. If they wanted more shoes, they would be responsible for purchasing them.

This plan worked quite well, and our children gained valuable experience in managing money. There were times they made unwise purchasing decisions. They got sad, regretted the purchase, and talked about not making that mistake again. Making mistakes is a great learning tool.

When my children were preteens, I would think out loud about purchasing decisions. It sounds like a typical word problem when written in a blog, but I used to ask questions like this all the time.
If I have $25, and I need to save $10 for buying something at the grocery store, how much can we spend on lunch?
And my younger daughter started "doing the math" when we ate out. She would look at a menu and figure out the individual price of something. If an order of six mozzarella sticks was $3, she'd say, "These mozzarella sticks cost 50 cents each."

There are so many opportunities for children to learn about money in the real world, an attentive parent doesn't need to buy a book to teach it. Just start talking to your children about your daily purchases and give them the opportunity to buy things with their own money. They will learn so much more than any worksheet could teach.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Math is fun in fourth grade!

As I confessed yesterday, I was worried about my ability to teach math to my kids when we first decided to unschool, because I always thought I was "bad" at math. Now that my children are 15, 18, and 20 and mathematically literate, I can say that my worries were unfounded. Now I find it somewhat funny and sad that a lot of people think that unschooling is great, but they still need a math curriculum or a math textbook.

A textbook or computer program makes sense for algebra, trig, or calculus. I can sort of buy it in junior high -- like a security blanket, okay. I'm not going to give anyone a hard time about having a security blanket. But I think the best way to use a math text in junior high is for mom or dad to read it, and if you find something where you feel your child is really deficient, go ahead and do that section of the book if it will help you sleep at night or stand up to the inlaws. But remember that the best way to kill a love of learning a subject is to make someone do drills over and over and over again, even though they know how to do it.

What really surprises me about math texts is when someone says they bought one for a child in the elementary grades. There is nothing taught in elementary math that cannot be learned through life. At best, a math book is waste of money. At worst, it's a surefire way to kill a child's desire to learn math. Oh, they will still learn it, but they are more likely to see it as "hard," instead of a part of daily living.

I just happen to have a fourth-grade math curriculum here. I bought it because my son requested it eight years ago.

The first eight weeks -- yes, eight weeks -- all start with the word, "review." So, there is nothing new for eight weeks. We will be reviewing everything we've already learned: addition, subtraction, skip counting, multiplication, division, telling time, and roman numerals. My favorite here is telling time. Even if we assume that no one uses addition, subtraction, etc, in their daily lives, do we really need to spend two weeks reviewing how to tell time? But let's move on ... although weeks nine and ten don't begin with the word, "review," they are still covering multiplication and roman numerals. The 11th and 12th weeks are a review of weeks one to 10!

I won't bore you with a week-by-week list of the curriculum, because it's ... well, it's boring. The big thing to learn in fourth grade, which finally starts around the 13th week, is measurements and money, including fractions.

So, to learn everything the average fourth graders knows about math, take your kids into the kitchen at least a couple times a week. Make a batch of chocolate chip cookies or brownies. After a couple weeks when they understand how the measurements work, ask them to double the recipe (adding fractions) and triple the recipe (multiplying fractions). Then get online and find a huge recipe and ask them to halve it or reduce it by 2/3 (dividing fractions). You could just cheat and multiply a recipe by three, then ask them to reduce it by 2/3.

Three years ago, my then-12-year-old daughter and I spent the month of November making about seven or eight different cookie recipes. We doubled or tripled most of the recipes, freezing the majority of the cookies. Then in December, when we had company for the holidays, we were able to pull out six or seven different types of cookies each time we had company.

Here is a fun challenge that is totally practical -- try making a batch of cookies using only the 1/4-cup measuring cup. We've done this before when all the other measuring cups were dirty or when we couldn't find the one we needed. It shows your child ...
4 X 1/4 = 1
2 X 1/4 = 1/2
and so on.

You also get into telling time. If you put your cookies in the oven at 10:05, and they are supposed to bake for 8 minutes, what time do you need to check on them?

Of course, you don't have to wait until your child is 9-years-old to do this. You can do it with your six-year-old, and then when the inlaws ask how little Johnny is doing, you can say, "Oh, he's working at the fourth grade level in math."

If you think your kids hate math, try this. Instead of saying, "Kids, time to do your math work!" say, "Kids, let's bake some cookies!" Not only do you wind up with children who know their fractions, you'll also wind up with a steady supply of homemade cookies.

Tomorrow: money, the second half of fourth grade math

Monday, August 25, 2008

This class is boring and hard and ...

I was not one of those children who loved math. Nor did I excel at it. The only two Ds I ever received in my life were in math -- fifth grade and eighth grade. Then seven or eight years ago, I went to a homeschool conference and attended a session on math. Prior to that conference, I always said, "I'm not good at math." That day I realized I was wrong -- I was good at math, but I'd had some unfortunate experiences in math classes as a child.

The teachers of those two classes where I got Ds scared me down to my toes. In fact, my eighth grade math teacher would slap children across the face several times a week. She gave one boy a bloody lip. I sat at the back of the classroom, and I'm normally a front-seat kind of student. I didn't want her to notice I was in the class, but one day she called me up to her desk. I remember her yelling at me, "Why are you shaking?" It didn't seem like a good idea to tell her the truth -- that I was scared of her -- so I just said, "I don't know." I don't remember why she was yelling at me, but I do remember being allowed to go back to my desk.

That was in 1977, and I would like to think that today if a teacher were slapping children almost daily, she would be removed from the classroom immediately. But it doesn't take an experience that dramatic for a child to be turned off by a subject. If kids don't feel safe, how can they learn? And I don't just mean safe from physical harm, but safe from ridicule and embarrassment, as well. Although few teachers would belittle a child for doing poorly, it is not uncommon for other children to make fun of classmates who have problems, whether the problems are academic, social, or physical. That is one reason why school does not work for some children.

And it's an insult to children to say that they should get tough and deal with it. If you had a job where you worried daily that you would be fired, would you be excited about going to work every day? If your co-workers made fun of you, would you be able to concentrate on your job and do your best? Most people would be looking for another job under those circumstances.

When I looked back over my years in math classes, I realized that there was a direct correlation between the teacher and my grade most years. And I don't think it had anything to do with the teacher's teaching or mathematical ability. It had to do with the teacher's personality. I got a 79% in high school algebra. The teacher was the freshman football coach, and he spent every Friday class in the fall talking about the football game. In the spring, he was the freshman basketball coach, and he spent a lot of time talking about the basketball games. And he wasn't talking to the girls in the class -- just the boys. I was bored and felt like he didn't really care about algebra or my learning algebra.

I got a 95% in high school geometry. The teacher was not a coach. He spent every day talking about geometry. He spoke to the boys and girls equally and was a really nice guy. But since I had "bombed" algebra, I refused to take a second year of the subject. When I got to college, however, I did take two semesters of algebra and got an A each semester.

My point here is not to blame teachers for bad grades. I know I earned a C in that high school algebra class because I didn't earn enough points to get a higher grade. And I struggled to get the C. I remember it being very hard. But the struggling and the bad grades in math classes caused me to paint a picture of myself as someone who was not "good" at math. I never thought about how uncomfortable I felt in those classes when the teachers were not talking about math.

There are several reasons why math teachers are not always the best people to teach math. Most of them become math teachers because they love math. That means they were good at it as students. Some people are intuitively mathematical people. One of my children is like that -- can do all sorts of math problems in his head and give you the answer, even though he's never had any formal instruction in math. But he can't explain how he got the answer. Yes, I know, teachers have been educated about how to teach, but if math has always been easy for them, they can't empathize as much with students who struggle. Although there are some good teachers out there, children's teachers change every year in schools. What are the odds that they'll get 12 great math teachers?

A common reason I hear for parents not homeschooling is, "I'm bad at math," and "I couldn't teach my kids math." I had that same fear when I started homeschooling, but I figured that my engineer husband could take care of whatever higher math I couldn't handle, since he uses calculus on a daily basis. But I think a lot of parents would learn the same thing I did -- you are not bad at math. I recently bought a used algebra textbook from Amazon for my youngest in preparation for college. I opened it to the first chapters and realized that it didn't look that hard. Just as I am always telling my children that they can teach themselves most of what they want to learn, I know I could teach myself algebra -- if I wanted to. But motivation is a topic for another day.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Not going back to school? Why not?

Today I was reminded of the year that we decided not to send our children back to school. We began homeschooling our children initially, but then in 1997, I went to work full-time as a newspaper reporter, and we sent our children, then ages 4, 7, and 9, to school. The youngest went to preschool, and the two older ones went to the local public school, which was excellent by everyone's definition. But "everyone" hasn't homeschooled.

After three years, I decided that my children's educational well-being was more important than my career as a reporter and editor, and I quit my job so I could bring my children home again. The oldest needed to be homeschooled because she was a perfectionist, always wanting to get the best grade and be in the classes with the "smartest" kids. I was worried she was working herself into early stress-related illnesses. The middle child was a mover-and-shaker kind of learner who didn't work well in a classroom. He needed to touch things, move around, talk, and do things. At the time, I thought the youngest would be okay in school, but when I thought about what that meant, I asked myself, do I just want my child to do okay? No, I want my children to excel -- to have the best possible education. So, they came home.

The youngest had few expectations of what homeschooling would be. The oldest remembered unschooling and knew that she could do whatever she wanted. But the middle child expected textbooks and schedules. I bought the textbooks and told him he could create his own schedule. He worked on the books for two or three weeks, but then moved on to reading Entertainment Weekly. All three children found their passions. The road wasn't straight, and there were a few potholes, but now that my children are moving on to other learning adventures, such as college, they are glad they were unschooled.

So, if your family is not going back to school this fall, why not?