A Tale of Two Troublemakers. (And the Teachers Who Teach Them.)

This past week I’ve had two college guys named Johnny* and Christopher* building a table in my garage. They live in an apartment and asked if they could use our tools and our space to carry out their building project.

I’ve been wandering past them as I come and go from the house, seeing their progress and chatting about things going on in their lives. Our lives have intersected in a number of different ways over the past 10 years so there’s always a lot to talk about.

This has gotten me to thinking about friends. And schooling. And raising kids.

Johnny and Christopher were homeschooled. They were very close friends of my second son, Jesse. Collectively, they probably weren’t an impressive group to people who care a lot about school grades and academic discipline. They marched to a little different drummer and they spent a lot of time in high school thinking about how to avoid doing schoolwork. In the homeschool co-op where I was a leader and teacher, the three boys often appeared disinterested in their classes and they got in their share of trouble. Christopher often bragged that he rarely did any schoolwork and was typically working long into the summer trying to catchup.

So, how are these two “troublemakers” doing today? Johnny and Christopher are not just doing well, they seem to have surpassed a lot of their peers in many of the ways that count. Christopher is working himself through college and, in the process, was recently promoted to a managerial position in the large company where he works. He’s a high school ministry leader at a local church. He’s the first person we call on in the family business for assistance in a bind when we need a hard worker, a person we can trust, and someone who can take charge and manage issues as they arise with a large degree of confidence and good sense.

Johnny is finishing up on college and owns an online business. He’s a vociferous reader and reads the writings of all the great philosophers for pleasure. It’s hard to keep up with him in a discussion or argument about politics, philosophy or sociology. This past summer he and my son decided it would be fun to spend some time in a foreign country so they purchased the cheapest airline ticket to the cheapest country they could find to visit and spent three weeks living on their own in Germany, Switzerland, France, and Czechoslovakia. They are fearless that way.

Johnny and Christopher are independent and self-directed, confident to a fault at times. They are also fun and funny. The apartment they share is constantly full of friends. There’s a string of girls lined up that want to date them. Life is not passing them by.

But this is not just a tale about Johnny and Christopher. It’s a tale about the teachers who teach them. And that includes me.

You see, when Johnny and Christopher said they wanted to build a custom table for their apartment in our garage I immediately reverted back to my old teacher/student relationship with them. In other words, I started telling them what to do. And what I was telling them was ALL wrong.

First, I immediately assumed that since Johnny and Christopher had no construction experience that they couldn’t build a table. So I told them they should buy one. Second, because I knew they had little money, I suggested Goodwill or the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store as places to shop. I did what a lot of adults and teachers do when they relate to children: I tried to replace their goals with mine and completely lowered expectations in the process.

Thankfully, true to form, Johnny and Christopher didn’t listen to the teacher.

You see, Johnny and Christopher didn’t want MY table. They wanted a custom table that would perfectly fit the space and meet the varied needs of the people living in their apartment at the time. They never even considered the possibility they couldn’t build the table, proving once again that confident and resourceful people can accomplish and learn almost anything if they really want and need to do it (if they haven’t been convinced otherwise by teachers and other “do-gooders.”) People who really want something don’t need a formal class or curriculum in order to do it. And they certainly don’t need a trained teacher to help them figure it out.

Here’s how Johnny and Christopher built the table: They designed a bar-style, high-top table that would fit perfectly snug between two walls in their apartment. They then tracked down FREE wood (pallets) so they could afford to build what they wanted. They followed that up by borrowing from friends the tools and space they needed to build the table. They carved out time from their busy school and work schedules to work late into the night throughout the course of a week. They were resourceful enough to ask my husband for design and construction advice along the way. (And to borrow our truck to haul the table back to their apartment once it was built). The finished piece was truly useful and beautiful.

A Tale of Two Troublemakers. (And the Teachers Who Teach Them.) serves as a great reminder of how adults often mishandle smart kids and learning. We (adults) think we have all the answers and that children will benefit from what we know. But children learn by creating and problem-solving on their own, not being force-fed answers to questions they didn’t ask. We limit children to our own understanding of the world, holding them back from becoming much greater than we ever were. We suggest imperfect solutions that don’t meet needs when children are willing and able to construct perfect ones that do.

Johnny and Westin wanted a custom table in their apartment and I suggested a common one. They wanted a masterpiece and I suggested a piece of junk. They wanted to work hard and I suggested they take the easy way out.This is the way of teachers.

Thankfully, Johnny and Westin don’t listen to teachers. They have always been “troublemakers.”

Until next time….Be fearless.

*Names have been changed.

Learning is as Simple as Finding Ways to Do What You Really Want To Do

One of the ideas I often explore on this blog is the curious adult notion that the purpose of childhood is to prepare for adulthood.

The average American will spend almost 12,000 hours of their childhood in school, not counting homework. Many will also go to pre-school. Most will go to college. And, all along the way, parents will beg their children to do things they don’t want to do or need to do as preparation for some vague and inexplicable future goal of adulthood.

Even as a young child this frustrated me. At six-years-old, I thought I was already a master of learning. I could communicate in one of the most difficult languages in the world — English. I could count well enough to buy all the candy that interested me at the gas station. I could follow enough rules to get along at home and church. I had figured out how to make friends (in the neighborhood) and influence people (my parents). And I hadn’t even started school yet.

Oh, yes, learning was easy: It was as simple as finding a way to do all the things I really wanted to do.

This is the essence and motivation of learning. It does not happen in a vacuum. If you get hungry, you find food. If you need to get somewhere, you find your way. If you get lost, you find your way back. It’s really that simple. Or maybe it’s hard. But if you really want or need something to happen, you find a way to get it done.

The problem is that adults see childhood learning not as mastering moments, but practicing for the future. They think children need to learn the map before they even have a place to go.

That might be a nice plan if it were even possible. It’s not. Too many destinations.

It might be an interesting pursuit, if it worked. It doesn’t. Too little childhood motivation.

Forcing people to memorize maps with no destination in mind is about as effective as forcing children to learn things in school when they don’t understand the point.

When my oldest son, Zac, was little, he asked my husband and I a deep question: “What’s softer,” he asked, “cotton candy or God?”

Adults think questions like these are cute. “Ha. Ha. That’s funny. Now stop day dreaming and learn your alphabet.”

We (adults) interrupt childhood and all the wonderful real learning and discovery that happens there to start preparing children for a future they can’t envision. When this process proves difficult, we do what all American parents do: we FORCE learning out of them.

At five years old, we sent our son, Zac, to kindergarten, where he worked on one new letter of the alphabet each week. After four weeks, we got an email from the teacher saying Zac couldn’t remember the name or the sounds of the letters they had worked on and could we please work with him at home.

Concerned parents that we were, of course we did what the teacher asked. Drill, drill, drill, regurgitate, regurgitate, regurgitate. Night after long night.

And Zac learned the four letters. Success!

Or was it? By the beginning of October of his kindergarten year, Zac hated school. He hated it so much he cried every morning, even on the day the class was slated to take a field trip to a local pumpkin patch. By Christmas, our family was meeting with a counselor to assist Zac with increasing school-related anxiety.

Here’s the truth about forced learning. It works. The child might hate it and the teachers and parents might too, but, if you work a child hard enough and drill him long enough, he will eventually be able to repeat back almost everything you want him to know.

Anybody can learn the alphabet this way. Anybody. Sit a child down and show him a flashcard of the letter “A.” Then say, “this letter is an A.” Lay the flashcard down and then immediately pick it back up again. “What is this letter?” If he’s forgotten, you might have to remind him. But repeat the flashcard process until he remembers the name of the letter. And he WILL eventually remember it.

Until he forgets it again. Which, in that case, means you start the memory process over again. This is how we teach children in schools. It may look different in some places and at some ages, but it’s basically the same all over, even in college: Learn stuff you don’t want to learn until you forget it. Then learn it again.

We don’t teach children. We condition them.

But, you ask, “Don’t children need to learn to do things they don’t like to do?” Or “Left to their own devices, won’t children choose to do nothing and never learn anything?”

Not at all. As children mature, they are increasingly able to understand the long-term benefits of any given decision and adjust their short-term actions accordingly, even in academics. If they really want to sing the alphabet song, they work hard to learn their letters. If they really want to read, they work hard to learn their sounds. Desire and need are the fuel of success and learning. Children and adults alike learn what they need to learn in order to do what they want to do.

This is “the grind” of life. People do the hard things in the short-term if they want the long-term results bad enough. For young children, school is all grind with no obvious payoff. This is why school takes so long to accomplish so little.

Recently we had a cable guy at our house installing a new cable box. It was 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and the guy entered carrying a huge “Gulp” drink from a convenience store. He had to go outside twice to take a smoke. He seemed indifferent when we noticed things weren’t working quite right. Finally, I shooed him on his way.

I know nothing about cable systems. I know less about electronics. But I know this: I wanted my cable system to work a lot more than the cable guy wanted my system to work. That put me at a distinct advantage over the expert. I sent the cable guy packing so I could get to work on understanding and solving the problem myself.

Never underestimate the potential of a person on a mission. Never overestimate a person who is not. Most children in school are on YOUR mission. You might as well get out the flashcards right now because the only way children are going to learn something of YOUR choosing is if you drill it in to them. But, if you wait until children are old enough to see and understand the need, they will learn it quickly and easily on their own terms. They will not need a childhood of flashcards, drill, and review to get it done.

After our disastrous school experience with our first child, we decided to delay formal academics with our second, especially the reading process. The results were startlingly effective. In fact, we didn’t have to teach our second child, Kelsey, to read at all. There came a point at about age 7 where Kelsey decided she wanted to be able to read all the beautiful and interesting books in our home. So she taught herself how to do it using a very natural approach commonly referred to as “whole language.” 

Learning to read is like all learning: Children learn what they want to learn in order to do what they want to do. 

Until next time…be fearless.

 

Smart People Unschool Their Kids

In the first year of our homeschooling, I met an unschooling family. I think there was only one in our entire town, a bedroom community of Lexington, Kentucky, where there was a pretty hefty homeschooling population.

Before then, I had never heard of unschooling, either by name or by definition. The idea of unschooling, where formal and systemic academic studies are set aside in favor of child-directed interests, seemed strange at first, even shocking. But here’s what struck me about this family: they were probably the smartest, most creative, most accomplished, and even the most fun of the hundreds of families in our local homeschooling community.

The unschooling family lived in a huge home on a lake and they often opened it for homeschool meetings and parties. They didn’t talk about themselves or their homeschooling a lot, but, in true unschooling fashion, their story naturally unfolded as I got to know them better. Mom and dad worked in “Research and Design” at the University of Kentucky and the children spent their days reading their favorite books and engaging in their favorite activities. The children were slightly weird and wonderful, like most kids, and very happy and passionate about all their pursuits.

I was intrigued, but unconvinced. After all, 200+ years of standardized American schooling couldn’t be wrong, could it? And, besides, I was schooled traditionally and I turned out OK, didn’t I?

As the homeschooling years rolled by I met more and more families who chose alternative schooling methods for their children. Each time, my head turned until I could no longer look away. Very smart people were unschooling their kids without pause or apology and the results were enviable.

I wasn’t really surprised when I recently read that Elon Musk—the man that Business Insider magazine calls “the world’s most inspirational entrepreneur” has eschewed traditional schools and favors educational approaches far more akin to unschooling. Or that Dr. Sugatra Mitra, the brilliant scientist who won the 2013 $1,000,000 TED prize for his work in education, strongly believes that even the most disadvantaged children can inspire, organize and discipline themselves to learn, and then outperform their traditional school counterparts at almost every turn.

Or that James Altucher, the well-educated (Bachelors from Cornell, Doctorate from Carnegie Mellon) and uber-successful entrepreneur and hedge fund manger who writes best-selling business books, has been begging his children to quit high school so they can unschool.

And yet most of us — those raised on a steady diet of systematic instruction — fear unschooling like we fear Black Holes and other mysteries of the universe. We do not understand what we do not know. And we do not embrace what we have not experienced.

I stumbled into the world of unschooling with my third child, Jesse. I wish I could say I was brave and sure enough to have chosen it, but I’m not as smart at Altucher, Mitra, or Musk. Nevertheless, unschooling was a foregone conclusion once Jesse refused to do school at home and I refused to have him do school at school. Here’s what I learned in the process:

Unschooling works. It’s not just an alternative to traditional schooling, but far better. It produces happy, self-organized children who love to learn and it lays the foundation for a joyful and complete home. Scientists, neurologists, psychologists, and even enlightened educators can tell you precisely WHY unschooling works. I can just tell you that it does.

My son, Jesse, took a lifetime hiatus from traditional school and then used the skills he learned NOT doing school (creativity, resourcefulness, self-discipline) to outperform his friends in college, most of whom had spent 12+ years “practicing” for college. The idea that we have to layer year after year of progressive information-sharing and academic assignments on our children in order for them to do well in college is a fallacy.

What’s interesting about Jesse, though, is not that he makes good grades in college (although I think it’s incredibly instructive to know that he does), but that Jesse thinks and acts differently than most of his peers. He’s more self-motivated and more resourceful, definitely more willing to seize opportunities and take risks. He loves to learn and is an inventive problem solver.

Jesse takes good care of his body, his mind, his faith, his relationships, and his finances, but he couldn’t care a fig about school. He thinks college is pretty much a waste of time, except as a place to connect with people and have fun. A few months ago someone told Jesse a local real estate mogul was visiting his university and Jesse, a budding real estate investor himself, dropped what he was doing and ran across campus to meet him. The guy offered Jesse a job on-the-spot.

This is the way Jesse rolls. For him, forging new paths and creating new opportunities are easy and normal. But it’s not so hard to seize life and chase dreams as an adult when you have spent your entire childhood doing the same.

Most people who teach children seem bent on insuring children do just the opposite. They insist children shelve their incessant desire to imagine and play in favor of sitting in quiet and dull classrooms. They put all their time and attention into corralling children’s intellect and controlling their energy. They succeed in creating excellent rote learners and experts at executing rudimentary, well-defined academic tasks. But they are left with a problem in the end: When children spend 12 years learning how to succeed in school, how in the world do they ever unlearn it?

Maybe the secret to why unschooling works has nothing to do with what it does, but what it doesn’t do. Unschooling prevents schooling. That may be the simple, most obvious reason why smart people choose to do it.

Until next time…be fearless.

Embrace Truancy. Try Homeschooling.

There’s been a lot of fussing about school attendance policy in my community lately. School officials think kids should get fewer unexcused absences. Parents think they should get more. And in the middle of the back-and forth, our school superintendent said something remarkable. She said business leaders are looking to schools to train students to be diligent about their school attendance, so they will learn to be diligent in their work attendance as adults.

The underlying premise of her statements has been clear. The woman who reigns supreme over education in our community believes students should go to school every day so they can learn to do the things they don’t like to do as children …so they can do well the jobs they don’t like to do as adults.

Is this really what we want to teach our children to do? The purpose of school should not be to train children to endure it.

There was a time in America when home was where you learned discipline and hard work and school was something more. Home was an excellent classroom for learning responsibility because children were immersed in the best personal responsibility curriculum ever devised. It was called “Chores.”

Now, we tell our children that school is their job. We measure their character by whether they can complete their homework, hand it in on time, and have their name written on the top of their papers. That’s fine, but education should be much more and much different than that. And careers should be the same.

There’s little vision in traditional education for real learning OR real work. Have you ever tried to get an excused absence from a school because you needed to make an important visit or attend an important event? Not going to happen. What about take an educational trip? Dream on. In school, learning only happens in classrooms and its measured by things like grade point averages and attendance reports.

Apparently, educators feel the same about work — that it only happens if you can count it or measure it. Our school superintendent said local business leaders told her they were looking for schools to train “soft skills” in students and she said those skills involved the ability to come to work every day and arrive on time.

“Punctuality” is important, but it should be expected and understood in school, not taught. It certainly shouldn’t be a lynchpin of the national curriculum and education leaders shouldn’t insult our intelligence by implying it is a vital component of the 21st Century skill-set.

If business leaders really are talking about attendance and punctuality as necessary job skills they are likely leading  employees at places like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. Because people with good jobs in today’s economy aren’t punching a time clock at all. They are paid and measured by their ability to produce and perform.

I remember the time I got a truancy letter from our local school district. We had taken our young children out of school to go on a very necessary (and very educational) family trip. It was a form letter similar to this one. It accused me of being a law breaker, threatened me with criminal prosecution, lectured me about the importance of education, etc.

I discarded that letter and started homeschooling. Now my kids get a real education in the real world where we can prepare them for more satisfying and more lucrative jobs than those defined by time clocks and manager reports. If you want to “train” people to work for minimum wage then force them to go to school. If you want to train people to work at something better, force them to learn. There’s a difference.

James Altucher knows a thing or two about how to be a success in the world of work. The popular author has written 11 successful books about business, started 20 different businesses, and produced podcasts about business that have been downloaded more than 20 million times. He’s also a prolific investor in business. I’ve read some of his books and blogs and downloaded his podcasts and I’ve never heard him say a word about the importance of punctuality and attendance in business. But I have heard him say a thing or two about schools. He hates them. And he has a unique take on training children. He believes they should be conditioned and even rewarded for doing the things they like to do as children….so they will choose jobs they love to do later on.

This thinking is completely contrary to my local school superintendent, as well as most other educators and parents. But then Altucher is brilliant and rich and most of the rest of us are still trying to figure out how to pay off our student loans.

Altucher understands that advances in technology are rapidly changing the work world, where companies are increasing owned and operated by small teams of highly creative and skilled people who use technology, not people, to assist them. In this world, mid-level jobs quickly disappear.

This is not conjecture or simply a dire prediction. It’s already happened. During the last recession (ending in 2009), 50 percent of the jobs lost were mid-level positions. Since then, only two percent of the jobs gained have been mid-pay. Approximately one-third of new job creation since 2009 has been high-paying positions (more than $70,000 per year), while two-thirds have been low-paying positions (less than $37,000 per year).

In his best-selling book, “Choose Yourself,” Altucher said students are left with two choices: They can prepare to invent, create, and lead, earning a high-paying job in the process. Or they can prepare to work in a minimum-wage job.

If you want the latter you might want to check out my local school system. They are working hard to make sure every student understands and masters one of the most important skills for a minimum-wage job — the art of “showing up.”

Until next time…Be fearless.

Teaching Children To Write Is As Simple as Tossing the Textbook

     Over the past half century, there has been a transformation in the way people write. Formal writing styles have given way to short, direct, and easy communication. Conventional story writing is out and blogging is in. Nobody wants to take the time to craft a formal essay and nobody wants to take the time to read one either.

     I say “good riddance” to old writing conventions that were wordy and dull and focused more on proper punctation than effective communication. It’s good that people are focusing on content over style, and learning to value writing that is easy, not hard, and short, not long. These changes serve people well across all platforms — business, social, and educational.

     Don’t look to traditional schools and writing textbooks to jump on the new writing bandwagon soon. As always, they will persist in teaching “correctness” over purpose and creating young learners who hate to write.

     Homeschool teachers have the freedom to change things for their children. They can build great communicators who can navigate the writing demands of both college and work with success. Here are some guiding principles I use to teach my children to write in our homeschool.

     Don’t use English and writing curriculums to teach children to write.

     Toss the writing programs and textbooks. When writing is taught as its own subject, it becomes tedious and meaningless. It also encourages writing styles that are formulaic, stunted, and unnatural, the very kind of writing that turns off today’s readers. Writing programs also frustrate young writers because they often expect students to come up with their own topics, or, even worse, write about suggested topics they are not interested in.

     Instead of using a formal writing program, I give focused writing guidance in a casual manner as my children encounter the need to write in school or in their personal lives. I try to be patient and not frustrate my children in this area, understanding that learning how to express oneself gets easier as children get older. They also naturally pick up on proper spelling and punctation as they spend years reading books, magazines, Web pages, signage, mail, directions, computer programs, etc.

     First and always, focus on communication in writing.

     Writing instruction should always promote thinking and content above all else. I work with my children on meaningful communication first and only add in punctuation, spelling, syntax, and structure as needed to bring clarity to their writing as they get older.

     In school assignments, I don’t expect my children to write well-punctuated and well-structured sentences until their high school years. Prior to that time, I focus on WHAT my children say, not HOW they say it. This will pay big dividends later on when college professors and bosses are expecting written answers that have clearly-stated information and meaning.

     If my students haven’t naturally picked up on basic and necessary punctuation and writing style rules by high school, I will add in some editing curriculum for reinforcement. A workbook series I like is Daily Paragraph Editing by Evan-Moor Publisher, but there are many others. I assign my high school students one review page in the Grade 5 or Grade 6 book each day and they know everything they need to know about English “mechanics” in about five minutes a day spent over the course of one semester, even if they have never formerly studied English composition and rules in previous years.

     In addition to the workbook reinforcement of practical writing rules, I also spend some time preparing my high school students for the English section of the ACT/SAT college entrance exams. I use workbooks tailored for the college tests for this. They do an excellent job of not only reinforcing the English rules tested on the exams, but also giving students extremely valuable hints and tricks about how to ace this section of the exam. In my opinion, the English section of the college entrance exams is the easiest section because all the writing expectations and rules can be memorized and learned a few days before the test. My children have all done well on the writing section of the ACT/SAT and I give most of the credit for this to the focused test prep we have done just prior to taking the test.

     Pay attention to punctuation, but ignore grammar.

     Correct punctuation is necessary to great writing. It assists with meaning and clarity and substitutes for the pauses and inflections we use in speech to help listeners understand what we are saying. But grammar is something very different. It is our “system“ of language. It is a fascinating study of words and sentences, the engine that powers the vehicle, so to speak. But, in the same way you don’t have to know how an engine works to drive a car, you don’t need to know how language works to speak and write well.

     Grammar has two components. First, it identifies and gives purpose to every word/phrase in a sentence. Writing assignments that have students circle the nouns in a sentence, find the direct objects, or underline prepositional phrases are grammar assignments. They are interesting for students who enjoy word study, but not practical or important to skill building. These kinds of assignments can be shelved with no negative consequences whatsoever.

     A second component of grammar is the rules of writing structure and syntax. These are much more important, but they are easily learned naturally in the context of normal conversation. When’s the last time you heard a happy, well-adjusted elementary-aged child tell a story using incomplete thoughts, incorrect tenses, and garbled sentences? It’s rare because children simply model the language they hear in daily conversation. They don’t need a grammar program to teach them how to identify and use words in sentences in order to use them properly and effectively.

     While shelving the grammar program, do the same with the spelling program. 

     Good spelling is important to readability and understanding in writing, but it simply can not be taught effectively in school. Instead, we learn to spell by reading, writing, and living in the word-infested world in which we live. This type of natural learning is not limited to simply remembering how certain words are spelled as we read them. We also learn the rules and patterns of spelling as we encounter more and more words in our environment.

     I used traditional spelling programs with my older two children, but shelved them with my younger three. I’ve seen little difference in the outcomes. My youngest daughter just turned 14 years old and has had zero spelling instruction. She went to a birthday party last weekend and I glanced over her shoulder as she signed the birthday card. She wrote “Your friend, Isabelle” with perfect spelling, style, and punctuation. When I asked her how she learned to spell the words and properly capitalize and place commas, she just shrugged.

     Good spelling is “caught,” not “taught.” And, when it isn’t, there’s always the fallback plan, which is “spell check” and “autocorrect.” Spelling lists and formal spelling programs simply do not work well to teach children to spell.

     Insist on brevity and simplicity in writing.

     Simplicity and brevity are the building blocks of great writing. Brevity is the first writing skill I focus on in our homeschool. It is important because it deals with a multitude of issues that crop up in writing — redundancy, verbosity, irrelevance, clarity, and more. If you teach children to use “economy of words,” it forces organization of thought, succinctness of communication, and prepares them well for all types and styles of writing.

     When my children are asked to answer questions in school assignments, I insist on short answers, using as few words as possible. I do not ask for complete sentences until the teen years and, even then, insist on short sentences. Forcing students to write more than the fewest words possible is like forcing children to eat every bite of food on their plates—the only purpose it really serves is in making them (or their writing) bloated and fat. Teach children to love and learn focused and meaty communication instead.

     By the way, “economy of words” is the most tested writing skill on the English section of the ACT and SAT college entrance exams. In fact, students are always advised to select the shortest passage on this section of the ACT and SAT if they are trying to decide between multiple possibilities. Brevity is valued in all corners of the educational and professional worlds.

      In addition to brevity, I encourage my children to keep their words and sentences simple. Since this is the style people like to read, it just makes sense that it is the style writers should seek to employ.

     In business and education fields where people must effectively write for public consumption, the readability of a document is critical. That’s why business and media writers often employ the F-K (Flesch-Kincaid) readability score to their writing to make sure they are on target.

     The F-K score measures what grade level a passage is written on. The lower the grade level, the more readable the passage. Most media and business communicators shoot for a F-K score of middle school or younger, as do writers who create for reading pleasure. The F-K scores of John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King are all middle school and lower.

     Even those writers considered the “masters” have low F-K scores. Ernest Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” has a F-K score equivalent to fourth grade. Jane Austen’s work has an F-K score of fifth grade, while J.R.R. Tolkein’s work has a F-K score of sixth grade.  There’s a nifty tool available here where you can quickly obtain the F-K score of your own writing.

     To assist with organization, teach children to pay attention to order in their writing.

     All young writers tend to wander with their thoughts and they can end up with run-on sentences and difficult to understand and read written passages. While insisting on simplicity and brevity in writing helps this problem, there are also some concrete writing tools students can use to bring organization and order to their writing.

     If my students are asked to provide written responses to questions, I focus on helping them use numbers, bullet points, colons, and commas to make their answers as clear and organized as possible.

     In story writing, I help my children organize paragraphs with transition words like “first,” “second,” and “third,” or “in the beginning,” “then” and “finally,” or “previously,” “currently,” and “eventually.” At first, I insist children use these terms to introduce new paragraphs in order to bring form to their writing and keep them “on point.” Later, I allow them to drop the transition words if they so choose and can produce a fluid document without them. Even so, these kinds of tools remain useful and handy throughout life, even for the most experienced and accomplished writers.

                                     _________________________________________________________

     My biggest fear about delaying writing instruction until high school and then focusing on practical writing skills over traditional English writing instruction was that my children would falter in college writing classes. I knew their writing would be appreciated in the professional world, but I thought college professors might care more about writing forms and conventions than actual communication.

     I was wrong. All three of my older children did well in their college writing classes. They may not have spelled every word correctly and properly placed every comma, but they could form a thought well and communicate it on paper. That’s something anyone can value and appreciate, even an English professor.

Until next time…Be fearless.

A Different Kind of Prom

The Gay-Straight Alliance in the city where I live, Lexington, KY, recently announced it was sponsoring a “Pride Prom,” a formal event where all teens can feel welcome, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Perhaps, in the current world most of our teens live in, an alternative prom for children who don’t fit in is needed.

But let me introduce you to a different world.

For the past 12 years, I have been part of the leadership of a prom for homeschooled teens. Any 9th-12th grade student who participates in one of the 10 programs of Bluegrass United, a Lexington, KY high school homeschool group, is welcome at our prom. We usually have 100+ students who dance the night away at some of Lexington’s most beautiful and popular event venues. For the past two years, our prom has been held at the most exclusive event venue in Lexington—Castle Post, a spectacular 10,000+ square foot, turreted castle situated on 50 acres in the heart of Lexington’s horse country.

Other than the beautiful prom venues and unique educational choice of the students who attend, there is one other big difference in our homeschool prom compared to a traditional school prom — no dates.

Yes, we prohibit dates and discourage pairing off at our proms. Instead, our homeschool prom is intended to be an end-of-the-year celebration of the many friendships that have been forged during the year.

Before you scoff at such an event, let me assure you that parents and students alike love our proms. What’s not to love?

Everyone attends our homeschool prom.

Nobody has to wait to be asked to our homeschool prom and nobody has the pressure of asking. Nobody feels forced to pair up with someone just to get a date and nobody feels like a neglected wallflower if they show up without one.

Everyone dances at our homeschool prom.

Girls dance with boys and boys dance with girls. Girls dance with girls and boys dance with boys. Sometimes there’s no partners at all as students circle up and dance with large numbers of other students at the same time. Our homeschool students often measure the success of a homeschool prom not by who they dance with, but how many they dance with.

Dancing and personal behavior is appropriate at our homeschool prom.

When dates are expected and promoted at proms, no one should be surprised when teen dating concerns are on full display. Couples dancing too intimately, couples looking for dark corners or slipping out to cars, couples leaving proms early for more private destinations — these are the hallmarks of proms where “coupledom” is glorified.

How did we get to a point in American education where schools feel the need and desire to host date events anyway? Is this the business of schools? While some social events can help forge a stronger learning environment by promoting friendships and community among students, date events do the exact opposite. They divide students and promote exclusivity.

Gay students don’t feel comfortable at traditional school proms? Well, welcome to the world of the shy and the dateless. They have not felt welcome at school proms since their inception.

Schools could solve a lot of issues associated with proms by taking a cue from the homeschool community and getting out of the dating business altogether. They should leave dating concerns up to students and parents to figure out on their own and turn their proms into rockin’ celebrations of friendship where ALL students feel welcome and wanted instead.

Until next time…Be fearless.

Why Coach John Calipari’s “Players First” Philosophy is Spot-On

Although much-admired and well-loved by University of Kentucky basketball fans, UK Coach John Calipari has been stirring up a little controversy in Lexington recently. In the past few weeks, he has twice told the media he would rather place players in the NBA than win a national basketball championship.

Oh, the shame of it!

This idea is actually nothing new for Coach Calipari. He’s been talking about it in one form or another since the day he placed five players in the first round of the 2010 NBA draft. He called it “the biggest day in the history of the Kentucky program.”

Coach Calipari’s “Players First” philosophy, which places a priority on player development, even over team achievement, also shines through in his willingness to work with “one and done” players. The constant recruiting and teaching that must take place when players shuttle through the UK basketball program at a rapid pace drains the time and attention of Calipari and his staff. But they shoulder on because it enables them to meet the needs and affect the dreams of two to three times more athletes than the average college basketball coaching staff.

At the heart of this mini-controversy over Calipari’s “Players First” philosophy is some emerging truth about the changing nature of college for all students, not just elite athletes. Simply put, nobody goes to college anymore for the experience. They don’t go to college to learn new things, explore interesting ideas, make new friends, build character, mature, or get the so-called “liberal arts education.” They don’t even go to college to win a national championship.

Today, students go to college to get a ticket to a well-paying career. Period. Nobody is interested in spending $50,000-$100,000 (or much more) to make themselves a better person. They can enter the military for that. Or the Peace Corp. Or the ministry. Those pursuits don’t take your money. Some even pay YOU to become a great person — “the best you can be.” Today’s college students are looking for something far less noble, but much more practical. They want jobs.

Calipari gets it. While he appropriately appreciates and respects the UK fan base, the university administration, and even his own personal aspirations to win athletic contests and championships, they are not what comes FIRST. In Calipari’s world, players come first. It should be the same for all people who say they care about children, especially those who get paid to do so.

We could argue all day about whether the glories of a liberal arts education were EVER a reason for young people to give up so much of their time and money. But, in today’s economic realities, colleges need to get over their high-minded ideas about any worth they have apart from their ability to place students in well-paying jobs. Other career preparation models are looming on the horizon, many of them supported by our nation’s most prestigious employers, and they are ready to “disrupt” higher education with a vengeance. Colleges and universities—places that pride themselves on building brains—better get smart enough themselves to stay one step ahead of the people and programs poised to replace them. They better get at least as smart as a basketball coach from Kentucky.

Calipari is being pragmatic, relevant, and correct when he promotes his “Players First” philosophy. When he says the careers of his players are what comes first and matters most to him, he is speaking the language of the only two things that should really matter in higher education — the students and the markets. If colleges aren’t meeting the needs and desires of students, or they are doing it apart from the demands of today’s markets, then they will ultimately fade away and fail. Simply put, colleges will survive going forward ONLY if they prove vital to the end game, which is job placement.

At the University of Kentucky, students are playing basketball to prepare for a career in the NBA. At the same time, the NBA is looking to Kentucky to fill its rosters. It’s a perfect fit, an example of how universities should be working closely with professional communities of all types to understand their needs and then train and prepare students accordingly.

This past season, Calipari held a pre-season combine for NBA teams to view his team. More than 90 NBA scouts and front office executives showed up. Those that missed it could watch it on television. Some people whined that such events would destroy amateur athletics. But here’s what I want to know: Why do we value amateur athletics so much in college anyway? Isn’t the purpose of college to prepare individuals to be professionals, not amateurs? Or are colleges only allowed to prepare students to be professional businessmen, teachers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, artists, etc. What is it about professional athletics that makes universities work so hard to make sure students remain amateurs?

To promote the legitimacy of professional athletics as a career option, the University of Kentucky should strongly consider two bold moves. First, it should establish a sports performance major at UK. This will get the university officially on record as an institution committed to moving elite athletes from amateur status to professional status. Second, UK should  reconsider its relationship with the NCAA. It should begin a serious discussion with all interested parties about a new (or improved) university athletic association whose sole mission is NOT to keep university athletes competing at the lowest levels possible for as long as possible with as little compensation as possible. The amateur mission of the NCAA is at odds with the career aspirations of many student athletes and completely out-of-sync with the overall purpose of higher education in the first place.

There’s a lot of angst among colleges and universities right now because everyone knows student and market demands are quickly changing. At schools where college athletics are merely extra-curricular—-a hobby for players and entertainment for fans—the future remains unclear. Will amateur athletic programs even survive?

Calipari has gotten way out in front of that question by not permitting Kentucky Basketball to be irrelevant and amateurish. He has not allowed his program to be wholly defined by the results of a amateur basketball tournament and has insisted on measuring the success of the program by the number of players getting jobs in the NBA. He will not let the general public, even his beloved Big Blue Nation, forget that he will always put the players need to develop and succeed at the next level ahead of the fan base’s need to win and be entertained.

In doing so, he has been responsible and right. He’s also been incredibly successful at his mission. After all, is there any college program, of any kind, at any place, getting a higher percentage of students to the highest levels of their chosen career fields at a higher rate of speed?

If the nation’s colleges and universities hope to be even half as successful as Calipari and UK Basketball at meeting the career aspirations of its students, they should start putting “students first.” If they do, their futures will become a lot less precarious.

Until next time…be fearless.