The Way Learning is Supposed to Happen (At the Point of Need)

This past week my college-aged son, Jesse, had a doozy of a week. He had two major tests and a large presentation he had to fit in along with a multitude of other on and off-campus responsibilities. In the thick of it all, he called me and asked if I could help him study for one of the tests.

I was a little surprised to get the call, but also pleased that I could help. I immediately cleared my schedule that evening and waited for my son to make the 20-minute trek home to study.

As it turned out, Jesse needed help with his Business Law class. I’m not strong on “business,” but I’m pretty good with “law.” So Jesse pulled out a study guide for his test and we went over it together. There were two things that stood out to me about this study session:

First, it surprised me how little Jesse knew about basic governmental law and function. Given that I was Jesse’s homeschool teacher, I could have felt bad about that, but I refused to. I’m pretty sure I made an effort to teach these basic notions, but Jesse simply didn’t pick them up.

But the second thing that surprised me was far more significant (and positive): At 21 years of age and with a difficult test staring him in the face, Jesse could learn at lightening speed. Within an hour, Jesse had mastered the information on the study guide, understood it, and could apply it. He then promptly fixed himself a snack, thanked me, and hurried out the door.

Lest you think Jesse really didn’t have that much to learn in that hour, let me assure you he did. The first question in his study guide concerned the U.S. Constitution and Jesse knew little about it.  The second question mentioned the “balance of power” among the “three branches of government” and Jesse had never heard of either. When I used words like “judiciary,” “executive,” and “legislative” to describe the three branches, he looked at me with blank stares. Each term had to be broken down and further explained. We pretty much had to start from scratch when it came to understanding basic governmental function. Only after he mastered the basics could he move on to the more complex Business Law principles addressed in the study guide.

But what would have taken a long time to learn in fourth grade (the grade when the these concepts are typically introduced) took just a few minutes for a 21-year-old. Not only that, but Jesse immediately understood the principles involved and was able to apply them. By the end of our one-hour study time together, Jesse could explain the different facets of complicated business law cases. He could predict the outcomes of those cases based on precedent and case law. And he could identify the different schools of jurisprudence utilized by various judges and attorneys.

This brings home a point I have long made: People—both children and adults—learn best (and maybe only) when they need and want to learn.

Forcing children to struggle with complicated subjects like the balance of powers and constitutional law when they are 10 years old makes no sense at all. There is no interest and no ability to understand something so distantly related to the life of a child. Even memorization at this age is more difficult than it is later on.

Education would be far more simple and beneficial if we let children learn at their own pace and as they encounter the need for learning. It’s funny, but my kids don’t have any trouble figuring out how to work any of our home electronics. They surf the Internet and manage social media like pros. Complicated computer gaming is a snap. They learn these things because they either want or need to. They retain the learning because they utilize it every day.

This is exactly how learning works in the real world. I remember my daughter’s first day on the job in a professional position following her college graduation. Kelsey came home in a panic saying her college classes in graphic design had not prepared her for the expectations of her graphic design job. She was being asked to make decisions and do things she didn’t know anything about. So what did she do? That night, her first night on the job, she desperately called a man from our church who worked in the same industry and pelted him with questions. The next day she returned to work armed with a plan.

I have lots of mantras in my homeschool. One of them is this: “Why do something hard today when you can do it easy tomorrow?”

In other words, don’t spend long hours forcing children to learn things they can easily (and better) learn later on. It’s not wise to frustrate children this way and it’s not smart to waste their time either. If the subject matter is difficult and you are having to teach and re-teach, set it aside. The time is not right.

Some teachers get this concept and will delay learning for awhile, but they get nervous as high school graduation nears . So they re-tackle difficult and unnecessary subject matter. They are worried about “holes” and “gaps” in education, fretting about what will happen if they miss teaching something that will come up later.

Well, here’s what will happen: Your children will do what Jesse and Kelsey did. They will figure it out for themselves.

They may have to do a little extra work. They may have to stay up a little later studying for a test or preparing for a work project. They may even have to call you, or another family member or friend, and ask for help. But they WILL figure it out because now, and only now, they HAVE to. That need ensures success like your random school lessons never could.

Until next time…be fearless.

 

One Thing That Worked in My Homeschool This Week (Sept. 22-26)

My good friend, Tiffany, also happens to write my favorite food blog, which is Eat At Home Cooks. (Check it out here.) She recently started a series titled “Three Things That Worked in the Kitchen This Week,” which I think is an awesome idea.

So I stole it.

Today, I offer you my first installment of “One Thing That Worked in My Homeschool This Week,” which will be a series of posts about one single, usually simple, thing that happened in the past week that could be categorized as “a success.” Notice I’m not quite as ambitious as Tiffany in coming up with three successes. But I figure if I can come up with just one success worth sharing with others, I’ve probably had a good week.

This week I’ve realized that my unique choice for a science “curriculum” is working quite well. This past summer I purchased one of those big, learning workbooks you can find at Sam’s Club and other big box stores. This one was titled “Science Essentials.”

Most homeschool moms don’t purchase these kinds of workbooks to teach their children because they aren’t considered “real” or “full” curriculums. So that fact alone makes my choice of “curriculums” just a little odd.

However, what’s truly unique about my choice is the suggested grade level of the workbook. This workbook is suggested for Grades 5-6. My girls are in Grades 8 and 10.

What?

Yes, my girls are working in a science book 4 to 6 grades under their own grade level. And I’m glad. Because it’s working.

Here’s the trap a lot of teachers fall into. Either by mandate or choice, we do not match the learning experience to the child. We simply assume what a child needs to know (based on what we have been told) and what a child can do (based on age and/or grade level). Rarely do these two things match up.

Having taught hundreds of children over the years, I know most children are operating in content areas way over their heads. As they get older, the problem escalates quickly. Children often “succeed” because they resort to coping strategies (memorization, “work arounds,” even cheating). But, often they have no idea what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how to apply anything they have learned.

What I’m talking about are kids who are trying to write research papers when they can barely write a good sentence. Or kids who tackle long division who don’t know their math facts. Or high school students who do complicated advanced science subjects and they still don’t know how a cloud is formed. Or how a lever works. Or how the Earth’s movement affects our days and seasons.

So, when I chose a science “curriculum” for our homeschool this year, I tried to choose books and activities that teach only what my kids need to know and do it is a simple, systematic way that leads to at least some retention of the material.

This fall my children have been reading and learning basic scientific principles and having fun doing it. They are learning, but not struggling. I’m quite sure they are getting down many of the fundamentals of science and maybe learning some interesting science facts along the way.

With my older children we tried many middle school and high school science texts. But we didn’t like or finish even one, not even the homeschooler’s favorite—Apologia. Parts were interesting and informative, but there was simply way too much work involved, the applications were too complicated, and there was too much information presented to be retained going forward.

Most teachers continue to push through these kinds of curriculums because they think their children must know these things for the ACT/SAT college entrance exams and for college science classes.

But this is so not true.

College science courses do not require prior knowledge and science sections of college entrance exams only require common sensical application of very fundamental principles. The worst thing teachers can do to prepare their children for what lies ahead is overwhelm them with so many scientific details and theories that they never learn the needed basics.

That’s why I plan to stick to my simple, little science workbooks. And, lest you think I’m crazy, consider this:

With my three oldest children, we never completed a “real” high school science biology course. We never studied chemistry or physics at all. However, all three made A’s and B’s in their college science classes and did very well on the science section of the college entrance exams.

My children are no geniuses. But our approach to science turned out to be pretty smart.

Here’s to the Troublemakers…

I have a confession to make. I have a soft spot for children who break the rules. I’m not talking about defiant kids. Or ones that just want to call attention to themselves. Or ones that break the rules simply because they can.

I have an affinity for children who break the rules because they simply have something much more interesting and important they want to do than what they have been told to do.

These are hard kids to raise and hard kids to teach. But, oftentimes, they turn into very successful adults.

Did you hear about the five-year-old Kentucky girl who walked away from her kindergarten class on the first day of school this year? She was found more than a mile away from her school, strolling down the sidewalk in front of the Wayne County Courthouse. When a police officer asked the child why she left school, she said, “because I was bored.”

This child wasn’t trying to make a statement, defy her teacher or parents, or scare an entire county. She simply wasn’t interested in wasting her day. This kind of thinking reminds me of a little girl who lived in our old neighborhood. For the first two weeks of kindergarten she snuck into the school cafeteria so she could eat with the low-income children receiving free breakfast. When her mother asked her why she did it, she said “because I was hungry.”

Last year I was teaching a line dance class at our homeschool co-op and noticed a boy I didn’t recognize dancing in the back row. I asked him what class he was supposed to be in, and he told me he was enrolled in a science class. When I asked him why he was in my class that day instead of science, he said, “because I like dancing a lot more than I like science.”

On the one hand you want to strangle these kinds of kids. But, on the other hand, there’s something about their initiative, cleverness, and good sense that’s impressive. These kids march to their own drummers, manage their own lives, and find the world around them so immensely interesting a set of rules couldn’t possibly contain them.

Now, I fully understand that children need to learn to follow rules and do things they don’t always want to do. I get that. But it bears pointing out that rule breakers sometimes have more “going on” that compliant children who never challenge or question the status quo.

Penelope Trunk, an unschooling mom who writes a popular education blog, makes a good point about following rules. She says: “When I tell people we don’t do forced curriculum at my house, invariably people ask me how my kids will learn to do stuff they don’t like. Here’s what I think: How will your kids learn to stop doing things they don’t like?”

I think Penelope has a point. Our world has lots of compliant people who sleepwalk through life. It’s like they’ve been conditioned (probably at school and at home) to be content doing things they don’t like or enjoy. They never make a bold move. They never do anything truly wonderful. They don’t even do the things they really want to do.

Because I have two internationally- adopted children I often have people say this to me: “I always wanted to adopt, but I never did.”

Because I homeschool I also have people say to me, “I admire you for homeschooling. I wish I could do it.”

My husband and sons recently took a week to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail. I can’t tell you how many times people said, “I always wanted to do that, but never did.”

These kinds of responses make me want to scream out: “YOU CAN! YOU CAN! YOU CAN!”

I think people get so comfortable with the routine and used to the mundane that they work harder to find happiness within their mediocre circumstances than to actually change the circumstances. Just as the little girl in Wayne County took a look around her kindergarten class and said “there’s got to be something better than this,” we need to look around our own lives and wonder the same thing. The spirit it takes to make a change and forge a new path needs to be encouraged and embraced in both children and adults.

Schools are the worst place to foster a spirit of independence and urgency in children. Because they are institutions serving large numbers of people, they must be rule-laden and rule-enforced. Children who think for themselves need not apply.

For the past 10 years I’ve been part of the leadership of a large homeschool group for high school students. This experience has given me some perspective beyond my own children.

Here’s what I see: The children who give us the most trouble as high school students are often the most impressive as they grow older. These “troublemakers” are not defiant students (we rarely have those), or mean students (we never have those) or lazy students (OK, we probably have a few of those), but I’m talking about students who politely decline to follow the rules because there is something much more interesting to do than what someone else has planned for that moment.

I’m thinking about the students who spend more time talking to their neighbors than listening to their teachers. Or the ones who are late to class because they can’t pull themselves away from their friends. Or the ones who skip out because they missed lunch and McDonalds is just down the road. I’m even thinking about the student who lit a fire in his desk (and all the boys who egged him on) because watching a fire burn seemed more fun than participating in a class discussion. These kids must be addressed and disciplined, but they should be treated with respect. Because this year’s fire starter is next year’s Bill Gates (he was once arrested), or Ted Turner (he was expelled), or Steve Jobs (who occupied himself in school by getting in trouble.)

“I was kind of bored for the first few years (in school), so I occupied myself by getting into trouble.” Jobs once said. “They (school leaders) really almost got me. They came close to really beating any curiosity out of me.”

In the past decade, there have been a multitude of studies done on successful entrepreneurs, those people who earn at least 70 percent more than the average worker. Three different studies (from the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Arizona, and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Research.) found four commonalities among successful entrepreneurs. The first three were not surprising. Successful entrepreneurs are 1) smart, 2) confident, and 3) have been raised in middle-upper class, two-parent homes.

Guess what the fourth commonality is? Successful entrepreneurs tend to engage in aggressive, illicit, and/or risky behaviors when they are young.

So the next time you catch your child breaking a rule or causing trouble, don’t be alarmed. Ruminate on this quote from Steve Jobs instead:

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… The ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – Stephen Jobs

Until next time…Be fearless.

 

The Venerable “College Search”

As students enter their junior and senior years of high school, one of the things parents start talking about is the venerable “college search.” That’s when parents, homeschool parents included, pack their high school-aged kids in a car and start driving them around the country, trying to find the perfect fit of student and school.

And that’s when I ask, “What in the world are you searching for?”

I don’t really ask it out loud, I just wonder it inside my head. But, I’ll ask it now: Why do homeschool parents who embrace the value of a close-knit family work so hard to send their kids away to college?

Our modern society is so mixed-up. Somehow we’ve gotten in our heads that parents raise children and, if they do it well, children leave the nest and become totally independent creatures. They go away to college, establish a great career, make a lot of money, and start a brand new family. The more independent and separated the child is from the parents, the more well-adjusted, or so society seems to think.

I think differently.

The family structure is the most practical and powerful structure in which a person can and should build his life. It is the place where people love you the most. It is the place where people understand and can relate to you the most. It is the place where people can normally and easily find common ground on which to live, work and carry out the functions of daily life. Practically speaking, family members can help each other with housing, child care, financial concerns, educational and spiritual needs. and much more. Many work together or establish businesses together. And, in modern society, where people struggle to find the time to establish good friendships, strong family relationships provide needed systems of support across all areas of life, including recreation and leisure.

Sending your children away to college is the first step of breaking down a strong, practical family structure. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about a lack of love. Families that live and work apart from each other love each other as much as those that live close. But the physical separation denies family members many of the practical benefits of a close-knit family.

I didn’t really understand the impact of having family close until my older children made the decision to attend a college just 15 minutes from our home. After a few years, it became immediately apparent that this had been a good choice. Here’s the advantages of choosing a college close to home:

Relationships with family, both immediate and extended, remain close and can be strengthened during the college years.

Relationships with high school friends can remain in tact.

Church relationships with peers and pastor remain uninterrupted.

Children can partner with family members for work projects or work in the family business while in college.

Relationships made in college (through school or work) have a greater likelihood of continuing beyond college graduation.

Career and work placements after college will more likely be in the area in which your family lives.

The likelihood of meeting and marrying a person who lives near your family increases greatly.

During college, all three of our older children worked in our family business, participated in a variety of work and civic projects with us, continued to go to our church, and took part in extended family dinners on a regular basis. Their younger siblings got to attend their college soccer games, celebrate holidays and personal achievements at their sides, stay overnight in their dorm rooms, and meet and get-to-know college friends when they stopped by our house for food or a dip in the pool.

Our two oldest children settled in our town after graduation (our third is still in college), enabling our daughter to meet, marry, and settle down with a man who is also from our town. Our oldest son is a full-time employee in our primary family business, our college-aged son works part-time for us while in college, and all three of our adult children are partners with us in secondary family-owned businesses. I’ve simply never understood why families who get along well are so anxious to get away from each other during the college years when there is so much to be gained by staying together.

Although my oldest son, Zac, lived on his own for a short time after college, he soon found he could save money and prepare better for his future by moving back home. This worked (and continues to work well) on our end too because we often need an extra set of hands with our younger children. We also need someone to watch the house and take care of our animals when we travel.

In fact, we have so appreciated Zac’s help at home, this last year we remodeled two rooms over our garage into an apartment in hopes of keeping the mutually-beneficial living arrangement going for as long as possible. The world may think this is a weird scenario, but only because it is blinded by current societal norms and can’t relate to multi-generational families who actually get along well enough to live under the same roof as adults. Only mature, well-adjusted people who are respectful of others can share homes. And, in the current economy and with our busy lifestyles, people who can share the expenses and responsibilities of a home are truly blessed.

Our daughter, Kelsey, lived at home after she graduated from college until she married our son-in-law, Michael. What was one of Mike’s biggest selling points as a potential son-in-law to me? At 28 years old, Mike still lived at home with his parents. As did his 23-year-old twin siblings. I knew that close-knit families beget close-knit families and that’s what I wanted for my daughter.

Mike and Kelsey have been married for a year now. They live just 10 minutes from our home and we see them often. As you might expect, they are also close to Mike’s parents, who live just five minutes away from their home. In fact, both sets of parents have become good friends, as well as both sets of siblings, and we’ve established an even larger family network among us.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some good reasons to go away college. But those reasons must be balanced with the understanding that many of the positive benefits of family relationships are being put at risk if children locate away from the family home base.

It seems like a lot of parents, even homeschooling parents, fall victim to “the college search” as a rite of passage and don’t consider the consequences adequately, even when the sobering facts about the benefits (or lack of) of a college degree are called into question. Consider these staggering facts about college:

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 27 percent of college graduates are working in a career field related to their college major.

Of those workers employed in their chosen career fields, a Harris survey conducted for the University of Phoenix showed that more than half wanted to change their careers. 

Additionally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that almost half of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that don’t even require a four-year degree. 

While a college degree may still be worth something in our society, seeking out the perfect school with the perfect program has little long-term value anymore. Perhaps students should focus less on finding the perfect college and commit to something of far more lasting value, which is continuing to build a beneficial and unshakable family support system during their college years. That’s something worth searching for.

Until next time…Be fearless.

Homeschooling: My (Not So) Epic Failures

People always say you can learn a lot from mistakes. So, today, I give you some of my biggest homeschooling failures.

Arguing With My Children Over Schoolwork

There are lots of good reasons to argue with your children. If they are mean or disrespectful to others. If they are sneaky or disobedient. If they don’t do their chores. Arguing over school work is not a good reason. Learning should be fun and interesting. I wish I had been less critical of my children as learners and more critical about what I was expecting them to learn.

Pushing My Children to Read Before They Were Ready

There is a lot of misinformation and unrealistic expectations floating around the homeschooling community about how and when to teach a child to read. I knew better because, as a trained teacher, I was armed with the facts. I knew children would read when they were ready. But I set the facts aside and still forced every one of my children to try to learn to read before they were ready. How foolish of me!

Not Reading Aloud More to My Children

As my older children aged, we stopped doing so much reading aloud together. I regret that. Fondly referred to as “couch time,” we would settle in for long periods of reading great books together. These were sweet times and I feel the discussion that accompanied the reading was as instructive in its own way as the book itself. Today, we still have what we call “couch time” in our homeschool, but we use it as a means to an end, not the destination itself. It primarily consists of a quick devotional/Bible reading. I’ve often wondered if my younger children would have loved reading more if we had more read-aloud time together.

Participating in Too Many Co-op Classes When My Children Were Young

Young children do not need to be involved in co-op classes. Most have no academic needs that can’t be met by mom and dad and most have no social needs that can’t be met by family, neighbors, and church friends. Co-ops can be difficult places with expectations not your own. They can unnecessarily clutter your life. They have many of the negative qualities of traditional schools because they are full of immature people (children) trying to find their own place in a big group. I wish I had avoided co-ops with my children until they were at least in middle school, and maybe older.

Not Enforcing More Order and Discipline in our Home

As my children got older and my family larger, I relaxed expectations related to order and discipline in our home. That was a mistake. Children need order in their lives and they need to have personal disciplines. It’s our job as parents to help them understand, employ, and appreciate these life skills. I should have focused less on academics and more on building personal disciplines.

Expecting Curriculum to Make a Difference

I spent way too much time pouring over curriculum and trying to pick the best one for my children. I know now that there is very little difference from one curriculum to the next and most of it is to be avoided anyway.

Not Traveling More

Our family traveled more than most, but I wish we had done far more. Traveling to a new place, meeting new people, and trying new things are the best learning experiences a person can have. But, even more than that, traveling bonds families. If you ask my older children what they remember and love most about their childhoods, all of them will say travel. Our younger children don’t like travel as much as our older children, but I’m determined to try to instill more of that sense of wonder and excitement over travel in them in the next few years.

Not Going on More Fields Trips

Local field trips don’t pack quite the same punch as travel, but they are still far better learning experiences than textbook learning. Museums are great, but “real world” field trips are even better. Visiting work places are super learning experiences. And we have loved anything “experiential,” like trekking across local pastures for a picnic with llamas carrying our gear. We also like to try local favorite foods when we travel to another town. These are great times, but our lives get busy and I get lazy. It takes work to plan field trips and sometimes it’s just easier to stay home. I really want to do more field trips and travel this year.

Starting Formal Academics Too Early

You can’t have read my blog of late and not seen this one coming. None of my kids did long days of formal school lessons even whey they were high school students, but the older ones still did far too much at too early an age. I tried to limit formal school lessons to the practical, but I misjudged how early my kids would need to learn certain things. Children do not need to do 12 years of math to get ready for the college entrance exam and the one math class they will have to take in college. They do not need to do 12 years of grammar/English mechanics to learn to remember to put a period at the end of a sentence when they are 18 years old. Most of the years we spent focused on these kinds of things were a colossal waste of time.

Having said all of this, it’s amazing how great my kids turned out and how special I still feel our homeschool is. But that’s the nature of homeschooling: No matter how much you mess it up, children still learn — if they are living and learning in warm, loving, safe environments. Their brains continue to function, their minds still work, and their inspiration and confidence levels are rarely affected. Homeschool families can put bad days behind them and move on to better days with barely a blink of the eye.

Until Next Time…Be Fearless.

 

 

Coffee Chat: Walt Disney World

(*Note: From time to time, I deviate from education and homeschooling topics on this blog and write about other subjects that interest me. These blogs are titled “Coffee Chat.”)

My family recently ventured to Orlando, Florida for a Walt Disney World vacation. Even though we have visited quite often, I still took the time to study the Disney web sites and pick the brains of my friends in order to better prepare for our trip.

Upon returning, I thought it would be fun to write my own advice column on how to visit Disney. I’m not much of an expert and I don’t have any underground information to share, but it’s always helpful to gain another person’s opinion on how to visit Walt Disney World. Here’s my tips:

Visit Disney World during low crowd periods…or don’t go at all.

Did you know the crowds at Disney can double from one day to the next and quadruple from one month to another? Large crowds will seriously devalue your tickets and possibly destroy your Disney experience. Find a way to go at the right time.

Everything you need to know about when to visit Disney World and which days to visit which parks is readily available on the Internet. Only veteran Disney guests should ever consider visiting Disney during the summer months or on peak weekends…and only under duress (if it’s the only time that works for your family).

The best month to visit Disney World for low crowds is September. The weather is still a bit hot, but you will enjoy moving around the parks at your own speed and visiting your favorite attractions as many times as you want. Due to sports’ schedules, our family can no longer visit Disney in September so we chose May this year. May is a low month at Disney, but September is still far better.

Set the alarm and get to the parks WAY before the gates open.

This is another piece of advice that most people know, but don’t take seriously enough. Visitors need to be standing in line waiting to walk through the entry gate 20-30 minutes ahead of the park opening. When the gates open, take off for the most popular attraction first. All the early risers are heading for the same attraction, but most will be about 10-20 minutes behind you because they weren’t at the front of the entry line. They will continue to be 10-20 minutes behind as you visit the second and third most popular attractions. If you follow this plan, you can visit all the big attractions during the first 2-3 hours the parks are open. After this, you should be able to relax and enjoy the rest of your day at the parks with very few lines to contend with.

Take every advantage of all the planning and execution tools available to you.

I already mentioned all the Disney planning websites available to you. These are golden. They will tell you what week to visit, which days to visit which parks, which ones to avoid when it rains, best places to eat, every detail you could possibly need to know.

In addition, you need to download the Disney application, “My Disney Experience,” to your cell phone. There are many things you can do with this official Disney application, but we used it primarily to see wait times at rides and attractions (it refreshes itself instantly) and to reserve Fastpasses.

The system of Fastpasses is something you need to familiarize yourself with PRIOR to your vacation as it can help neutralize the negative effects of the large crowds. Generally, you can select three Fastpasses per day. Sometimes you can select additional Fastpasses once you finish your first three, if there are still reservations available.

If you are visiting Disney during medium or peak months, you should select your Fastpasses WEEKS ahead of time. If you do not, the most popular reservation times for each ride will be taken and it will affect your ability to plan your day the way you want. If you visit when there are fewer crowds, you can generally reserve your Fastpasses the week of your trip, although reservations for newly-opened attractions can still fill up fast.

There are any number of strategies that can be used to make best use of the Fastpass system. For our family, we like to reserve Fastpasses for the most popular rides during the peak afternoon hours. That way we can hit these rides first thing in the morning without Fastpasses and then return for a second visit in the afternoon.

If the budget allows, stay on Disney property and reserve a premium Disney dining experience.

Staying on Disney property will improve your Disney experience significantly, but it’s expensive and, therefore, may not make sense for your family. We have done it both ways and, if the budget allows, I would pick staying on site. In addition to having free transportation to every place you want to go on Disney property and having extended hours to visit the attractions, you can also go back and forth between the parks and your accommodations during the day. You can also do this if you are staying near the parks, but it’s going to take you much more time and also cost you $17 every time you want to park your car at Disney.

If you visit Disney during low-crowd seasons, you will finish visiting the ride attractions by the end of the afternoon or early evening each day. But spectacular evening shows await. If you stay on Disney property, you can return to your accommodations for dinner and then make a second visit to the parks in the evening.

Keep in mind, the “value” accommodations at Disney World are more like Motel 6 than they are like Holiday Inn. They are clean and themed, but are bare-boned and flooded with people. If you desire more and the budget allows, you might want to consider “moderate” or “deluxe” accommodations.

     Disney resort dining is also something I recommend should you have a budget that allows it. The experience is costly, but memorable, and can be a highlight of your vacation. Do your research on this one too. The best restaurants are not located within the parks, but at the Disney resorts. Check out the many Disney web sites for tips on how to choose a restaurant based on your food tastes and the kind of dining experience you are seeking.

If you dine at a resort on the lagoon, make sure you head to the water at dusk to watch the Disney Light Parade. Boats parade by with their thousands of twinkling lights set to music. It’s a dose of Disney magic, for sure.

If you’ve “been there, done that” at Disney, check out Sea World and Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure on your next visit to Orlando.

Disney lovers can completely miss the fact there are two other wonderful parks in Orlando – Universal Studios (and its’ sister park—Islands of Adventure) and Sea World. While not quite as magical as Disney, the attractions at Universal Studios are more state-of-the-art and impressive, and there are far more thrills at Islands of Adventure. Although I enjoy Universal Studios more than Islands of Adventure, “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Islands of Adventure is a marvel and not to be missed. Nothing at Disney can rival it.

For those who appreciate a much slower pace, Sea World is a good choice. And, with a handful of thrill rides included, Sea World has enough fun and excitement to keep the teens happy too.

Until next time…Be fearless.

Why I Homeschool My Children Through High School

For the past 13 years, I’ve been homeschooling one of my children through their high school years. I’ve also taught hundreds of other homeschooled high school students in co-op settings. I’m convinced high school homeschooling is far superior to sending children to public or private high schools. Here’s why I homeschool my children through high school:

I homeschool my children through high school for the same reasons I homeschooled my children prior to high school. Because it works.

I have never understood why some homeschooling parents quit at 9th grade and send their children to traditional schools. Do the benefits of homeschooling suddenly disappear at Grade 9? Do schools and schoolteachers suddenly get better? Do parents no longer need to mentor their children? Is the home no longer superior to an institution as a place to raise and educate children? The truth is, nothing changes when children reach 9th grade. Homeschooling still works best.

I homeschool my children through high school because high school homeschoolers have swag.

As one of the lead administrators of a high school homeschooling group, I get to work with lots of high school homeschoolers. No doubt about it, these are confident, functional, well-adjusted kids. Compared to other teens, they have a deep sense of who they are, less concern about who they are not, and a desire to share themselves with others. Compared to other children, homeschooled high schoolers are more independent and confident and open to new ideas and activities. They are fun and interesting people to be around. These are the kind of people I want my children to be.

I homeschool my children through high school because I want my husband and I to continue to be major influences in the lives of our children as they deepen and broaden their world view and consider their futures beyond our home.

The high school years are the time when parents can have the most impact on the lives of their children. Up to age 10, the parents’ role is primarily to love their children and keep them safe. That parental role expands greatly as children mature. Parents become mentors for their older children. They advise and provide wise counsel. Homeschooling through high school gives parents and children much more time to grow and learn together.

I homeschool my children through high school because I want other homeschoolers to be my children’s primary social group.

Homeschooled children are kind to each other and they know how to have fun. They tend to be members of functional, in tact families and it shows in their maturity. As a group, homeschool children go to church more than they go to movies or parties, they delay dating, and their parents strictly monitor their social lives. These are the kinds of kids I want my children to hang out with.

I homeschool my children through high school because I don’t want my children’s values and religious beliefs to be tested before they are ready.

It always makes me cringe when homeschool parents say they are sending their children to traditional high school because they are sure their children will be able to stand on their own values and beliefs. Or, even worse, they are expecting their children to change the culture around them, either by being a superior role model or by being an evangelist for their faith. I think it’s dangerous to send children into an environment like high school before they are mature, tested, and prepared. The consequences can be truly dangerous. High schoolers are still children and it’s better to keep them safe and in a positive environment for as long as you possibly can. They will have plenty of time to tackle the world and prove their substance when they are adults.

I homeschool my children through high school because I don’t want my children to miss the college and career opportunities available only to homeschoolers.

If I homeschool my high school children, they can take many of their classes at area universities and rack up high school and college credit at the same time. They have the time to focus on academic preparations for college classes and college entrance exams, to get jobs in order to save money for college, and/or to get apprenticeships or internships in order to explore potential career choices.

I homeschool my children through high school to give my children the time to pursue extra-curricular interests.

It’s great if high schools offer lots of sports, theater, and club activities, but what difference does it make if the demands on students’ time takes up all their daylight and evening hours? If you live in or near a city, it’s likely these same opportunities are available to homeschoolers, just in a slightly different format. Are you an accomplished musician? Consider a community band, orchestra or philharmonic. A sports enthusiast? Find a recreational or club athletic team to play on. Interested in ROTC? Try the Civil Air Patrol or other quasi-military community group. Speech and debate? Join 4-H. Theater? Try community theater. Service clubs? The sky’s the limit on this one! Church youth groups, Boy and Girl scout programs, and oodles of community service programs abound.

Slate magazine recently published an article by Laurence Steinberg, a professor at Temple University, sub-titled “American High Schools are a Disaster.” He referenced the dismal academic progress that has been made with high schools, saying, “It’s not just No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top that have failed our adolescents, it’s every single thing we have tried.” He also wrote about the horrible social environment of American high schools, where students “socialize, show off their clothes, use their phones and, oh yeah…go to class.”

Why would I want to send my high school children to a place like that when there’s a place like home?

Until next time…be fearless.

Homeschooling in a Virtual Age Wrap-Up (Part 5)

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing a series of blogs titled “Homeschooling in a Virtual Age.” Each blog addressed a different topic related to the overall subject. But how do the various topics fit together? Here’s a chronological summary of the main points:

1. The rapid advances in technology have completely changed the way we live and work in the world. Almost every career field in America has been changed at its very core by the fact that computer technology can put large amounts of information and diagnostic services at the fingertips of every American.

2. To succeed in this new environment, people no longer need specialized information or skills, but the ability to select, synthesize, manage, and apply mega amounts of information quickly and wisely. The ability to do this takes smart people. It takes people who can think. It takes people with well-functioning brains.

3. To help children prepare for life and career in this new world, parents and teachers should focus on providing instruction and activities that build the brain. Recent advances in scientific brain research have made it clear how this is accomplished: Brains are built through exercise. The more the brain is utilized and the higher the order of thinking, the faster the brain functions and the bigger it grows. In other words, brains don’t just “fill up,” they expand and contract and speed up or slow down based on the degree to which they are used.

4. Therefore, in homeschooling, parents should be seeking out assignments and activities that engage and stimulate brains, spark higher order thinking, and demand as much multi-level use and quick application of brain function as possible. These kinds of activities typically do not happen in traditional classroom environments where assignments rely on one or two steps of problem solving or focus on unnecessary acquisition of knowledge readily available to students via the Internet. Brains are built far better in places like backyards, playgrounds, studios, stages, ball fields, libraries, living rooms, and even bedrooms. Because these are the places where children live, work and play. The places where children solve real problems of complexity and are inspired to imagine and create new ways of playing, living, and learning.

Home schools are strongly positioned to engage in brain-building activities. Even if homeschool families teach and learn using the same methodologies employed in traditional classrooms, they are still far ahead of their public and private school counterparts because they do it for less time each day.

Instead of the six-hour brain drain that most school children go through each day (not to mention the hours of homework each night), homeschool children complete their assignments in a fraction of that time. Afterward, they are free to engage in the types of activities that truly build brains.

One of the most interesting research studies I encountered while preparing for this blog series involved London taxi and bus drivers, two very different occupations requiring very different skills and preparations.

The difficulty of being a taxi driver in London is legend. People seeking a taxi license must demonstrate they have memorized the location of 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks, as well as all the routes between them. This gargantuan task is made even more difficult by the fact that London streets twist and turn and follow no grid pattern at all. After memorizing this information, London taxi drivers must employ it by picking up any number of different clients each day and transporting them to where they want to go, expertly navigating a city of 8 million people without GPS.

On the other hand, London bus drivers must pass a far simpler test, and then follow it up by driving the same, simple route each day.

When scientists looked at the brains of the two groups, they saw that, as a group, taxi drivers’ brains were much different from those of bus drivers. Specifically, the hippocampus in the posterior region of the brain was much larger, a critical finding considering this area is where short-term memory is transferred into long-term memory. The conclusion? When large amounts of information are sorted and applied regularly, the brain physically grows. This, in turn, increases the opportunity and capacity for even more complex learning in the future. Simply put, London taxi drivers, by virtue of their daily activities, are smarter than London bus drivers.

If homeschoolers want to get smarter they should avoid the simple tasks and routine of the London bus driver and open themselves up to the complex, real world of the London taxi driver. Their brains will be bigger and better because of it.

Until next time…be fearless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thirteen Splendid Activities to Build the Brain (Homeschooling in a Virtual Age Part 4)

In the past two decades there have been some amazing scientific breakthroughs in understanding how the brain works. Advances in technology have enabled scientists to see and isolate what physically happens in the brain at the cellular level when new tasks or problems are addressed. And here’s what they found: The more people learn and the faster people learn, the more the neurotransmitters in the brain strengthen and grow. New connections form and the neurons transmit faster and more accurately.

This is not supposition by scientists. New imaging techniques have enabled scientists to track each of the 85+ billion neurons in the brain and the trillions of connections they make. The results have been surprising. Instead of the brain being “static,” as scientists previously thought, they now know we can actually “build” brains.

This has huge implications for learning and education. In the past, we only thought we could “fill up” a brain. We could teach it about things and have it experience things, but the capacity of the brain would remain the same through it all. We thought the brain was simply a genetic gift we were either stuck with or blessed with.

Now we know the brain is like a muscle that can be physically increased and strengthened with exercise. People learn to learn by learning. They learn to think by thinking. The more complex and stimulating the learning, the more the brain changes and adapts to handle even more complex learning in the future. The entire process is not all that different from building muscles by lifting weights. It really doesn’t matter what you lift—bar bells, sand bags, canned vegetables–because the benefits are derived from the exercise itself. The same is true for brain building. It’s not the content of the learning that matters, but the nature and intensity of the workout.

What does this mean for homeschool teachers?

First, we should not spend 13 years of our children’s lives entirely focused on transferring content from books and curriculums to the brains of our children. We will literally put our children’s brains to sleep by slowing down the neural activity. Instead, we should challenge them daily with new and complex activities that stimulate their minds and, ultimately, lead to new brain development.

Sound hard? Not really. There are thousands of activities and pursuits that build brain activity better that traditional school lessons. Just look for activities and tasks that require the brain to:

  • Process new information
  • Analyze and evaluate information
  • Apply learning to new situations
  • Make decisions quickly

Some formal school lessons can touch the tip of the iceberg when it comes to building brainpower, but it takes more complex activity than just “studying” to really boost brain function. Here are some of my favorites:

1. Organized Sports

Organized sports build the brain because they require players to constantly be incorporating new information into old to make rapid-fire decisions about how to play a game. Competition and team-based elements escalate learning.

2. Playground and Lawn Games (Unorganized Sports)

Games like tag, hide-go-seek and other recreational sports aren’t as good as team sports because they are less complex and are typically played at a much slower pace. But they are still good mental workouts.

3. Music Creation

Creating music requires mental and physical dexterity and boosts many specific brain functions, including attention, decoding, recognition of patterns, creativity, visual discrimination, auditory processing, and memory. The cognitive benefits of playing a musical instrument have often been studied and the results can be found here. Listening to music also has cognitive benefits, but not as many as creating it.

4. Card Games

Card games teach more than just math skills. They boost brainpower as players consider strategy based on how the game unfolds from one moment to the next. Card players must make a new decision each time a card is played in a game. Good card players actually play several games at the same time because they understand and consider what other players are thinking and doing throughout the game.

5. Strategy Board Games

These hold similar cognitive benefits as card games. Among the best? Dominos, Chess, Checkers, Risk, Mastermind, Scrabble, Backgammon, Settlers of Catan, Axis and Allies, the list goes on and on.

6. Video and Computer Games (Strategy and Simulation)

Don’t let popular sentiment about computer games sway you. Most carry some cognitive benefits and many carry a lot. Strategy and simulation games are the best. Check out their cognitive benefits here.

7. Video and Computer Games (Brain Building)

The full cognitive benefits of these are debated, but most studies are showing at least some considerable benefits from playing computer-based games that exercise specific brain functions. The popular web site Lumosity currently has 60 million users, including myself. Based on my own experience, these games are beneficial. But the benefits are limited by very defined objectives and lack of broad-based thinking required.

8. Reading

Schools destroy the cognitive benefits of reading by requiring students to answer questions about what they have read when they finish. Smart kids quickly figure out they need to isolate pieces of information and notate possible test answers when they read, rather than engage in the open-ended, creative process of embracing a complex story as it unfolds. When people read for pleasure, they explore and interact with the story, developing new ideas as they go along and predicting the outcomes as the details of the plot are unearthed. This is higher order thinking that builds the brain. Read more about the cognitive benefits of reading for pleasure here.

9. Watching Video, Television, and Film

Similar to the benefits of reading, stories played out on the small and large screen stimulate brain interaction with the plot and characters. Obviously, complex and sophisticated video stories require much more brain function than others. Keep in mind; some shows require so little brain function they may be of no cognitive benefit at all. Also, compared side by side with reading, visual media is typically not as beneficial. Readers have the advantage of being able to slow the story down in order to explore and interact more with the characters and plot. They also must use more creativity to fill in all the visual details of the printed story.

10. Telling or Writing Stories

Communicating a story, event or an idea takes a lot of brainpower. An experience must be recalled or created. It must then be ordered and organized in a manner that makes sense. Finally, it much be delivered with impact. Encourage children to write and tell stories. The more creative the better. Today, there are many ways to tell stories–journaling, letter writing, email, creative writing, blogging, videos, or the old-fashioned way, which is sharing with family around a dinner table.

11. Art

Any art activity that encourages people to be creative has cognitive benefits. The more open-ended and creative the project, the better. But even coloring books build brains because they require attention, discrimination, and a modicum of creativity. 

12. Creative Play

Playtime can be the most important, brain-building time of the day. Any play that involves moving, thinking, creating, imagining, and/or the five senses is superb. Think cowboys and Indians, princesses and action heroes! Avoid toys. 

13. Performing Arts

Drama, dance, vocal music, and other performing arts are all wonderful platforms for building brain function.

As I look through this list of 13 activities two thoughts and two questions come to mind. First, these are activities that most children would classify as fun. So why frustrate children with boring school lessons and homework when they can be engaging in activities that not only are more fun, but also build the brain better anyway?

Second, for most children, even homeschoolers, these 13 activities are typically done AFTER school. It seems a shame to keep children at the kitchen table all day “doing school” and then hoping they’re not too tired later to participate in the activities that would teach and build their brains far more. Maybe homeschool parents should pencil into their schedules the activities listed here FIRST, and then do traditional school lessons in the time they have left over?

Until next time…Be fearless.

 

 

Soccer is More Important Than School (Homeschooling in a Virtual Age Part 3)

Last year I was speaking to a group of homeschool parents and I said something that startled some people. I said: “If I had to choose between school or soccer for my children, I would choose soccer.”

It was an uncomfortable moment. Heads turned. Eyebrows raised. Nervous laughter sprinkled the room.

But I was being serious. I truly believe that soccer (and many other sports and activities) are more important to building a person’s brain, mind, and character than anything that can be accomplished in a classroom.

In 2012, The Economist Group, a highly respected multi-national media company which publishes The Economist and specializes in international business and world affairs information, took an exhaustive look at current educational practices across the world and how they relate to living and working in a democratic, market economy. The group identified eight skills needed by today’s students. Here they are:

1. Leadership

2. Digital Literacy

3. Communication

4. Emotional Intelligence (ability to identify and control emotional well-being)

5. Entrepreneurship

6. Global Citizenship

7. Problem Solving

8. Team working

I don’t think many people would argue with this list of practical skills and abilities needed to function well in the world today. So I ask you: What teaches these skills better? Soccer or School?

Is it even close?

Most people are aware of the many benefits of sports for building character when they are played in proper environments with good leadership, but few people consider the cognitive benefits. Soccer (and other sports) are a splendid learning environment for the brain because they present real world problems in a rapid fire, do-or-die environment. Students rise to the occasion and perform or they sit the bench. The environment both inspires and ensures the brain performs fast and well.

The opposite is true for the traditional school environment. Here’s the problem with formal academics: Problems are broken down into tiny, fundamental pieces requiring only low-level brain function applied one step at a time. In schools, most assignments have one, very defined objective, easy for most kids to think through (and teachers to grade). Read a story and answer the comprehension questions. Compute a math problem. Even complicated math problems are typically just multi-step problems that utilize basic skills.

Instead of these kinds of simple academic tasks, parents should be looking for real or simulated problems/activities where students are either forced or inspired to make lots of cognitive decisions of all levels and nature very quickly. These kinds of activities are the training ground of the mind because not only are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of decisions being made in a short period, but the consequences of those decisions are being realized in real-time, forcing the mind to be constantly rethinking possible outcomes and then recalibrating for success.

Sports are a great vehicle for training the brain for peak function. The more intricate and fast the sport, the better. Team sports are particularly valuable because players have to not only be aware of their own decisions, but what everyone else is doing and thinking as well. The game changes by the second as the ball moves and people move, requiring a new evaluation and decision by the player each new moment. Secondary considerations are also constantly in play: What is my position and role? What are the coaches’ expectations for me? What is my teammate yelling and what is he trying to get me to do? Will I be subbed out if I don’t perform? Am I too tired to continue?

This is the nature of real-world problems. They are not simple and they do not come at you one at a time. In schools, the brain has to work harder figuring out how to traverse a difficult social environment than how to memorize a body of information for a test. Memorization is the lowest form of learning, while analyzing and evaluating are two of the highest.

Since the brain learns by performing, parents should seek out high-level performance tasks for children. There are many that are not only valuable, but fun as well. In my next blog, I’m going to be sharing 10 activities (beyond sports) that build brains better than formal school lessons.

Until next time…Be fearless.