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!