Building Character in Homeschooling

When I first started homeschooling, someone very wise and wonderful handed me a gem of a book titled “Things We Wish We’d Known,” by Diana Waring. The book consists of a collection of 50 essays written by long-time homeschooling moms about things they would have done differently to homeschool their children had they known in the beginning what they knew in the end. Imagine getting this kind of advice from 50 homeschool veterans when you are just starting out!

What struck me about the book is almost all the essays had similar themes. Essay after essay, veteran homeschool moms talked about how they wished they had concentrated less on academics in their homeschools and more on character building, faith development, and simply spending time with their kids. None of the 50 moms said they wished they had worked harder on academics, covered more subject matter, or prepared their children better for college. Instead, as a group, they pleaded with new homeschooling moms to relax and not do “school at home.”

If I were to write an essay for this book, mine would be similar to the other veterans. Early on, I focused way too much on academics, frustrating my children and our relationship at the same time. But as the years wore on, I garnered the courage to set aside preconceived notions and other peoples’ expectations and begin to homeschool my children in ways I knew would be best.

Today, I think more about building character in my children than academic preparation for college. The surprising truth that has emerged from this focus is an understanding that character building IS the best way to prepare your children for college. Knowing and understanding huge bodies of information has only limited returns and those returns are predicated on figuring out what children need to know, learning it, and then retaining it until they need to use it. That’s a pretty tall order.

By focusing on character, teachers can put aside the relentless goal of preparing students’ brains for everything and, instead, prepare their character for anything. The truth is, we are never fully prepared for life, whether it be college, career, or personal circumstances. But, if we have the desire, resourcefulness, and personal discipline to overcome our shortcomings, we will succeed.

This reality proved true for me throughout school, college, and my career. In college and throughout my 20’s I worked in the journalism field as a general assignment reporter. Each day I would arrive at work, meet with my editor, and then launch into a day of assignments that ran the gamut from politics, to business, to education. On a daily basis, I had to speak with important people who were experts in areas I knew little about. There was no way my education could have prepared me for the range and depth of subject matter I would encounter as a news reporter (nor in college, for that matter). Instead, I had to rely on my resourcefulness, my good sense, a healthy work ethic, and other character strengths to get the job done.

One of my most embarrassing news reporter stories happened the first day on the job as the news editor of my college newspaper. I was told to interview the college president about a change in the tuition structure for state universities. With a deadline just three hours away, I had to get background, complete the interview, and write a story about a very complicated and detailed process governed by both education and politics. I was scared.

I walked into the interview with the university president that day a nervous wreck. I was intimidated by the president’s position and, truthfully, I didn’t have a good grasp of the subject matter either. My desire to make a good impression on the president added to my anxiety.

I launched into the interview; systematically going through the list of questions I had prepared. After the third question, the president paused, looked directly as me, and said in a very serious, but kind manner, “You really don’t know what you are talking about, do you?”

It was a horrible moment that lives with me to this day. But it taught me an important lesson: Being smart is not about having the right answers. It’s about asking the right questions. Wise people don’t know everything, but they know how to find out. And they have the desire and character to see the process through.

I eventually learned how to interview important people on important topics. I even established a good relationship with that college president who would welcome me many times over into his office to talk about news items of interest to my readers.  I found that the key to working in this or any career environment is not having the answers, but listening, adjusting, and then applying what you have learned.

In our homeschools, it’s vital to focus less on providing and teaching the  “answers” to children and instead focus on building the kind of character that will create lifelong learners. This is the way to prepare students for success.

In my next post I will share some concrete ideas about about how to build character through homeschooling.

Until next time, Be fearless.

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Teaching With Great Stories

Teaching has changed very little over the past 100 years. If my grandmother, a former teacher, walked into a classroom today she would see the same kinds of materials and the same teaching methods she used 75 years ago. That wouldn’t be so surprising except most people seem to think today’s schools don’t work that well. That being the case, shouldn’t we be making a few changes?

One thing that has changed in my homeschool classroom is, except with the exception of math, we never use textbooks anymore. It was hard to give up textbooks. I wanted them to work, I really did. Afterall, how nice would it be to hand a textbook to a high school student at the beginning of the school year and have them understand everything they need to know about the subject by the end? We all worry about preparing our children well and textbooks are nothing if they are not complete and systematic presentations of huge bodies of information. But, do they actually deliver?

All five of my kids really disliked textbooks. And even the most studious of my five kids didn’t do very well with the review and test material. Since tests are tools to measure learning, I never had to guess whether textbooks were doing the job with my children. The test scores told the story.

In his book, Brain Rules, John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist who studies the brain, tells us why textbooks don’t teach very well. He explains it in scientific detail and supports it with scientific research, but what it all boils down to is this: the brain simply doesn’t pay attention to boring things. Despite the best intentions of parents, teachers, and textbook publishers, the brain will not pay attention to things it does not want or need to know.

For this reason, I use great stories to teach my children. Stories grab the attention of children and keep them engaged. With my children who are good readers, we use great books written by great writers. With my struggling readers, we use read-alouds, picture books, and great films and videos. The common thread here is “great,” meaning visual and printed material prepared by talented people who truly understand how people think and absorb information and ideas.

I learned about the importance of teaching with great stories while working as a classroom teacher. In my first year as a third grade public school teacher, I was given the responsibility of teaching Social Studies to every third grade student in the school. Dutifully, I began the year on page one of the district-approved textbook titled “Communities,” a book about community helpers and citizenship. However, I quickly noticed that even my best students were doing poorly on the tests. Something was wrong. I tweaked a few things and still saw little success. So I did something unheard of in my school – I tossed the textbook.

Instead, I purchased a new best-seller a friend had raved about -– “A Walk Across America,” by Peter Jenkins. In the book, Jenkins, a young man disillusioned with himself and his country, walks across America to see if he can prove himself wrong. It’s a lovely, emotional story that showcases the best of Americans and the communities they live in.

Each day I read a portion of Jenkins’ story to the children. I put a huge map of America on the wall and we followed Jenkins’ travels by marking his path on the map with pushpins. As he entered each new state or region of the country we learned about those areas. Much of the information we learned had been in the textbook we had shelved, but now we were learning it in the context of Jenkins’ amazing story. On the day I read about Jenkins’ dog passing away in the middle of the journey, it was difficult to read through my own tears and above the sobs of the students. At the end of each class, my students begged me for more.

Is it so unrealistic to believe that learning can and should be so fun and interesting that students clamor for more? I don’t think so. For the past few weeks, we have been watching the hit television series Downton Abbey in our homeschool. I challenge anyone to hand me a textbook that does a better job of conveying this period in history. From the biggest ideas and difficult concepts to the tiniest details, Downton Abbey is an amazing teaching tool. And each day my children beg to watch just one more episode.

There is an unlimited number and array of great books, television shows, and films available to teach almost anything well. What I love about these well-conceived and presented resources is, when utilized, we learn more than just details about people and places. They take us much deeper than textbooks and they often deliver a context for why the subject is important. We learn about what makes people and entire societies tick. We learn what inspires people. Or what crushes them. Why they reach out and why they sometimes keep to themselves. How they feel when they accomplish something, or when there is great loss. All of these things make children think more and think deeper than the shallow presentation of facts in textbooks.

One of my favorite homeschooling moments happened many years ago when we had just finished reading “Carry On, Mr. Bowditch,” a true story about a historical figure from the maritime industry who overcame one sad obstacle after another to finally achieve success and happiness in his life. A theme that runs through the story is that people must learn to “sail by ash breeze” when life gets difficult, a reference to the need to get out the oars (typically made of ash wood) and start rowing when the wind dies and the boat can no longer sail smoothly along on the breeze. The writer, Jean Lee Latham, does a beautiful job of not just telling the story of this amazing man, but also inspiring readers to work hard to “make their own breeze” when winds die and our lives get stuck in places where we don’t want to be.

Just after reading the book, I took my children to hear a Holocaust survivor speak at Georgetown College. On the way home, we began to discuss the woman’s amazing life, one where she had to overcome poverty, loss, and sorrow to find her way in the world. And yet, there she was, traveling around America, well-spoken and well-educated, and speaking to audiences of thousands. At the end of the conversation, my daughter, just 10 years old at the time, piped up from the back seat and said, “Mommy, mommy!”

“What,” I asked. “That lady sailed by ash breeze,” she said.

I’m still amazed my young daughter could not only understand this complicated and subtly-presented concept, but could so perfectly recognize it when it came her way again.

Nathaniel Bowditch was a man of great accomplishment who is sometimes referred to as the father of modern maritime navigation. He probably warrants a blurb in many history and science textbooks. But I’m pretty sure he would have been long forgotten in our family if we had read about him in a textbook. Because we learned about him in a “great book.” we not only know who he is and what he did, we also understand and embrace why he was able to do it. That’s the real lesson of Nathaniel Bowditch’s life.

Until Next Time: Be Fearless.

What I Learned About Teaching from a Basketball Coach

Monday night’s NCAA National Championship game was a heartbreaker for a University of Kentucky basketball fan like me. But it has been a fun season to watch and learn from a master teacher – University of Kentucky Basketball Coach John Calipari.

Here are three things I learned about teaching from John Calipari.

1. Preparation and ability position children for success, but it’s character that ensures it.

All of us have been frustrated at one time or another with children who have all the ability in the world, but often don’t rise to the occasion. The child who misses half his math problems because he forgot to check his work. The high school student who turns in a three-sentence essay. The college student with the high SAT score who ends up flunking out. These are not cognitive problems. These are reflections of a person’s character.

The same is true on the basketball court. As talented and heralded as the UK freshmen were this year, they landed on campus without the ability to consistently win basketball games. By the middle of the season, the pre-season number one team was nothing better than ho-hum. But then the team started winning. Game after game, heartfelt effort after heartfelt effort. The difference? The execution of character.

All people, especially children, struggle with the challenge of matching performance to ability. Without determination, diligence, self-discipline, and other important character traits, students fall short of their goals, even when they possess superb athletic, cognitive, or artistic abilities. As teachers, it’s our responsibility to help students understand the importance of character, inspire them to execute it, and continually put them in environments where they can learn to apply it. This pursuit should be a significant part of our homeschooling objectives.

2. When something isn’t working, STOP!

When the Kentucky basketball team was struggling this past season, Coach Calipari instituted the infamous “tweak.” It changed his team from losers to winners.

There is always – ALWAYS – a new and better way of doing anything. Put away the old textbook. Try a new teaching strategy. Take a vacation. Maybe it doesn’t even matter what you do because sometimes it’s the change itself that sparks renewed interest and effort. Whatever you do, if something isn’t working, just don’t keep doing it the same way you always did it before.

3. Make your own kind of music, if you want to sing your own special song.

Not afraid to challenge the status quo, forge new paths, or try new approaches, Coach Calipari has re-invented himself, his teams, and maybe even the game of college basketball itself.

As homeschool parents, I think we often settle for the same strategies, have the same expectations, and feel gratified by the same passing grades. We have the opportunity and the freedom to accomplish great things in our homeschools. Instead, we settle for things like “covering all our bases,” and “getting my child through high school.”

In homeschooling, we can rewrite the lesson book on raising and educating children. We don’t have to do it like everyone else does. Because we can do it better.

Until next time….Be fearless.

Coffee Chat: The View From My Place

Why don’t you grab a cup of coffee and we’ll chat?

I love to blog about important things, but there’s nothing more fun than having a simple chat with a friend over a cup of coffee. On this blog, I want to take a moment here and there to just chat. The subject matter is wide open. Let’s just get to know each other.

Today I want to share a little bit about home. We’ve had a hard winter this year, but there’s no prettier place in the snow than my place. Here’s the view out my kitchen window. This photo was taken just a few weeks ago. You can see my husband, Bob, heading out to the barn to feed the animals.

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Just as pretty as the view out my back window is the view out my front window. Here’s the view from the dining room. We eat most of our meals in the dining room during the winter and my place at the table looks directly out this window. In this picture, you can see Bob walking back to the house from getting the mail.

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We have a bevy of animals on our place. Bob, a farm boy from way back, loves them and takes care of them diligently. I’m not much of an animal person, but I like having them around. They’re fun and funny and beautiful to look at. Currently, we have two cats, a dog, a pig, three alpacas, one llama, and a few chickens. Here’s Bob leading our llama and alpacas out of the barn.

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As the snow melts and winter turns to spring, the views from my place get even more beautiful. I can’t wait to share them with you.

Until next time: Be fearless.