Learning Like a Slumdog (Homeschooling in a Virtual Age Part 2)

There’s a new buzz word in education and, for once, it’s a good one. It’s “executive function.” This term refers to the ability of a person to supervise and organize his own cognitive processes to achieve success in tasks presented to him. Executive function is the key to how a person functions in the world around him and is the number one predictor of success in school and work.

This is a huge step forward for educators to acknowledge that it’s not what a person knows or even the basic skills he possesses that’s important. But it’s how he manages his thinking and applies it to life.

Since the beginning of organized education, schools have been focused on building basic academic skills (reading, writing, etc.) and imparting large bodies of information (history, science, etc.) These things aren’t inherently bad, but they are only the building blocks of learning, and not even the most important ones at that. When we spend 13+ years focused on imparting details and working on preparations, we rob children of the time to engage in real learning. It’s like spending all your time accumulating the ingredients, but never getting to bake the cake. Or training to kick or hit a ball, but never getting in a game.

In schools, we have reduced learning to basic skills and information and we have bored our children to death in the process, leading to a massive lack of learning. It reminds me of the time my husband took my five-year-old nephew skiing for the first time. Before he let him loose on the beginners’ slope, my husband tried to explain to him all the ins and outs of skiing down a hill without breaking your neck. About halfway through the speech, my nephew interrupted him and said, “Can I PLEASE just ski down the hill now?’ He then took off straight down the hill at breakneck speed.

I really don’t remember if my nephew made it to the bottom of the hill on his feet or if he crashed halfway down. It doesn’t really matter. Because, no doubt, he learned more about skiing in the 30 seconds it took him to fly down that bunny hill than he could have learned in 30 minutes in my husband’s beginner ski class. Real learning occurs from properly executing in real life situations, or learning from your mistakes when you don’t. That’s how children and adults employ and improve executive function.

Executive function is both an inherited and acquired ability. But it’s not a learned skill. You can’t take a class on it. You can’t break it down into blocks of learning and you can’t measure it’s growth with any kind of standardized measurement. Executive function improves through trial and error in real life situations. Schools and “schoolish” activities are not the place to learn executive function.

In my last blog, I promised to write practical ways homeschool parents can help children develop their brains and higher level thinking processes (executive functioning) for the 21st century. I still plan to do that. But, I can’t move forward with that until I point out what homeschool parents should NOT do. What you should NOT do is more important than everything you SHOULD do put together. Here it is:

Stop doing school.

That’s it. So simple, yet so hard for most homeschool parents. If you can’t bring yourself to completely stop (I haven’t), then delay, postpone, or cut back. WAY back. Stop wasting everyone’s time teaching things that don’t matter and/or can be self-taught at a later date (using executive function). Instead, free up your child’s schedule to start engaging in activities of their own choosing where real-world “problems” can be addressed. As children start engaging and solving problems in the world around them, they get smarter. And they naturally pick up and learn those basic skills and pieces of information that teachers want students to know in the process.

One of the most amazing experiments related to how children learn was conducted in 1999 by Dr. Sugata Mitra. Famously titled, The “Hole in the Wall Project,” Mitra, while serving as chief scientist at a leading software company in New Delhi, embedded a high-speed computer linked to the Internet in a hole in a wall in a slum in Kalkaji, Delhi. Mitra wanted to see if the children who lived in the slum, none of which had access to computers in their homes, schools or communities, would discover it on their own and teach themselves how to work it. He provided no written or verbal instruction about how to use the computer before he walked away.

When Mitra returned at the end of the day, a large group of children was huddled around the computer. They had already figured out how to use a little hand-held device called a “mouse” to link between their isolated slum in India and the rest of the world via the Internet. Within two months, the children were using the Web in sophisticated ways to explore their interests, learn new concepts, paint, record music, and play games on the Disney web site. Not only did they accomplish this without a teacher or instruction, they also had to teach themselves the English language as they went along.

This is the way executive function works when the brain is firing on all cylinders and the environment for learning is right. Give a child time and reason to learn and his capacity to make it happen escalates proportionately. It’s no longer about what he knows or has stored in his memory, but his willingness to collect, process, and apply NEW information to the problem at hand. This is the skill needed to function well in the 21st century.

Today, Mitra operates 30+ “learning stations” across India that engage in what he calls “self-organizing learning environments” or “minimally invasive education.” His schools were the inspiration for the movie Slumdog Millionaire, which won 7 Academy Awards. Last year Mitra was awarded the prestigious $1 million Ted prize, which is awarded to one extraordinary individual each year who has a bold and creative vision capable of inspiring the world and sparking global change. You can watch Mitra’s fascinating Ted Talk here.

As homeschooling parents, we should take our lead from Mitra. Rather than modeling our homeschools on traditional schools, we would do better to replicate the unique learning environment of Mitrra’s slum experiment. We need to kick the kids out of the classroom and into the real world where they can discover and explore things of real interest and are inspired to solve problems of worth.

Until next time…Be fearless.

Homeschooling in a Virtual Age

A few days ago we were driving home from a short trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee and we got behind a U.S. Mail truck. I started thinking: Will there even be such a thing as a mail truck in 10 years?

Things are changing so fast in our world today I can barely keep up. The U.S. Postal Service? Going fast. Print journalism? Almost dead. Network and cable television news? Following on the heels of newspapers and magazines. Brick and mortar libraries, schools, and banks? Unnecessary. Retail shopping? Changing so quickly our heads are spinning. (Ever heard of Apple’s beacon technology  or Amazon’s Prime Air?)

 The Information Age that astounded us yesterday is being superseded by the Virtual Age, a time and place where people can no longer observe the world from the sidelines. Knowing how to interact and move forward in such a rapidly changing virtual world takes a cool head and a keen mind. This doesn’t just hold true for business and political leaders, but for parents, students, and rank-and-file employees as well. Average citizens and good employees used to be able to get by just by following rules and obeying orders. Today, they must rewrite the rules, define the questions, and innovate the answers.

 Change is not an easy task for conventional schools to address. Institutions don’t switch gears easily. But home schools are different. They are small and flexible and unburdened by government regulation. They are run by people known to think for themselves and out-of-the-box. Homeschools are positioned to meet the demands of the new age our children will live in.

So, what are you doing different in your homeschool to prepare your children for this rapidly changing new world?

 A good place to start is to evaluate the kind of learning going on in your homeschool. We shouldn’t just be throwing information at our kids anymore and hoping it will stick. Our kids need to go much deeper. They need to learn how to think.

In education, we have a model for cognitive learning called Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. The goal of Bloom’s Taxonomy is to define the goals of education and present a hierarchy of learning that demonstrates how students should be progressing from low-level, basic cognitive tasks to higher, more complex forms of thinking. The original pyramid model (below) was introduced more than 50 years ago. Almost every trained educator has been using it in one form or another to evaluate curriculum and learning ever since. 

blooms_old

 As illustrated by the pyramid, the lowest level of learning is the knowledge level. Sometimes referred to simply as “remembering,” learning at this level happens something like this: 

Teacher: “See that tree? That is an elm tree. Now, what kind of tree is it?”

Student: “It is an elm tree.”

In other words, if students can memorize and regurgitate information then learning has occurred at the knowledge level. Ninety-five percent of what goes on in schools, even homeschools, happens at the knowledge level. The remainder happens at levels 2 and 3 (comprehension and application).

However, in our current world, people must learn to think and function at levels 4, 5, and 6 (analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating). There is so much rapidly changing information coming at us so fast and in so many different ways, all of it critical to the well-functioning of our businesses and homes, that we must get very good at sorting and processing. It’s the only way we can find successful pathways through the world around us and make sound decisions about the future.

In response to the changing realities of the world around us, associates of Bloom have revised the original taxonomy. You can see in the new depictions below that the six levels of learning have been renamed, and the pyramid has been inverted to illustrate the need to commit increasing amounts of classroom time to learning at higher cognitive levels.

Revised_Bloom_Pyramids

In traditional schools, it’s difficult to build environments and teach lessons that inspire and promote advanced cognitive skills. But, in homeschools, it’s natural and easy. In my next blog, I’m going to share some practical ideas and simple solutions that have helped other homeschooling families build children who are creators and innovators, not just “rememberers.”  

Until next time…Be fearless.

 

“Old School” Homeschooling in a Modern World

I count myself lucky that I became part of the modern homeschooling movement in its early years.

I began homeschooling almost 20 years ago, just one year after homeschooling became legal in every state. The people who taught me how to homeschool at the time –the people who wrote the books and magazine articles and spoke at homeschool conventions –had cut their teeth and learned their craft in a difficult environment, often under threat of criminal prosecution. The result? Like pioneers in any movement, the people who taught me how to homeschool were people of strong conviction and purpose. They were bold and brave. They were well-organized and political. As a group, they were different from today’s homeschoolers.

I often refer to the style of homeschooling I learned 20 years ago as Old School Homeschooling. There are two strong characteristics of Old School Homeschoolers.

1. Old School Homeschoolers know WHY they homeschool.

If you are going to take risk and buck the system to do something, you are generally driven by a strong belief in what you are doing and why you are doing.it. Early homeschoolers didn’t just drift out of conventional schools because their children didn’t get placed in a certain class, or they wanted flexibility in scheduling, or there was a shooting in a far-away place. They didn’t see homeschooling as an “alternative” to traditional schooling or just one good choice out of a number of possible choices. They had a strong conviction that homeschooling was extremely right and good and that conviction is what kept them going in the face of hostile school officials and unsupportive friends and families.

When I started homeschooling, discussion among homeschoolers often focused on teaching approaches, styles, and philosophies. Instead of coveting the Rainbow Resources catalogue, with its thousands of pieces of homeschool curriculum, people subscribed to homeschool catalogues put together by homeschool parents sharing their favorite resources for their unique way of homeschooling their children.

One of the favorite homeschooling catalogues for my generation of homeschoolers was put out by The Elijah Company, run by Chris and Ellen Davis. This thin catalogue published on newsprint featured very little curriculum, but lots of words of wisdom about how to homeschool. Chris Davis wrote often about the many approaches to homeschooling – unit studies, principle education, classical education, etc.—and he always exhorted homeschooling parents to think about what they were doing and why they were doing it BEFORE they set out to do it.

I used to read Chris Davis’ homeschool catalogue from cover to cover, as did most of my homeschooling friends. All of us subscribed to other family-run homeschool catalogue companies as well. In fact, you could often tell what kind of homeschooling a family did by what catalogues they subscribed to.

Twenty years ago almost every homeschool mom could pinpoint and explain her educational philosophy. Today, most homeschoolers define themselves by what curriculum they use.

 2. Old School Homeschoolers care more about home, than school.

Old School Homeschoolers know and value their educational philosophies, but they care even more about the environment and atmosphere where education takes place.

The homeschool veterans who were teaching me how to homeschool were constantly saying things like this to me: “Don’t frustrate you children.” “Let love permeate your homeschool.” “Explore your children’s interests.” “Don’t bore your children or pressure your children.” “If you love your children and just give them a little guidance, everything else will fall into place.” “Relax.”

Once someone handed me a cassette tape (yes, I said “cassette”—it was a long time ago) and the speaker on the tape referred to homeschool moms who forced or pressured their children to learn as “bullies.” Yikes! Not everyone agreed with this statement, but people listened. They got the point.

When I first started homeschooling, the word “KONOS” was a flashpoint among homeschooling moms. Technically, KONOS was/is a unit study curriculum, but it’s really more than that. KONOS embraces an atmosphere for learning where children and parents explore and interact with the world around them.

KONOS published (and is still publishing) huge books of hands-on learning activities that families can engage in together. The activities are loosely connected by themes, hence its classification as a unit study.

In my first year of homeschooling I attended a “How to Homeschool” seminar led by a homeschooling mom who used the KONOS curriculum/approach. I sat there mesmerized as the woman clicked through slides of her family engaged in KONOS activities. There were pictures of her family making costumes, putting on shows, eating their favorite international foods, engaged in arts and crafts activities, etc. My mind kept shifting back and forth from the engaging and fun KONOS activities captured on the slides to my own, dull classroom experiences as a student and school teacher. I knew instinctively that this woman was on to something. THIS is what I wanted for my home and my children.

KONOS was a controversial topic among homeschool moms because, truth be told, every homeschooling mom, deep down, wanted to be a KONOS mom. The problem was it took a strong commitment of time and creativity to do it. So, while many wanted to be KONOS moms, there were only a few with the energy to carry it out.

I was one of the many moms who never really mastered the art of being a KONOS mom. Still, the tug was always there and it sparked an openness and understanding about learning that kept me on the right track.

Yesterday I participated in a huge homeschool book sale. There were hundreds of buyers and sellers. In the morning, I dropped off 225 items to be sold and, when I returned 10 hours later, I had sold most of them. But, lying there on the top of the stack of books that hadn’t sold, was my KONOS curriculum. Nobody wanted it. Perhaps most of the buyers had never even heard of KONOS.

What distressed me about this is not that homeschoolers don’t do KONOS anymore. Afterall, I never really did it either, at least not well. What saddens me is that KONOS, and everything that curriculum embodied, really isn’t part of the discussion anymore. Neither are the other educational styles and approaches that made homeschooling such a an excellent choice and perfect fit for almost every family.

Old School Homeschoolers believe homeschools should be bold and beautiful and as different as the philosophies and personalities of the parents who lead them. They do not want homeschools to simply be different shades of the same, nondescript color. If you agree, I have a cheap KONOS book I can sell you.

Until next time…be fearless.

Taking Care of Trouble in the Schoolyard

I was listening to the radio recently when I heard a commercial about schools that made me sit up and take notice. The commercial was dire and disturbing. Here’s what I heard:

“Today in school I learned a lot.  In chemistry I learned that no one likes me.

In English I learned that I’m disgusting. And in physics I learned that nobody loves me.

Today in school I learned that I’m ugly and useless. And in gym, I learned I’m pathetic and a joke. 

In history, I learned that I’m trash.

 Today in school I learned that I have no friends. In English I learned that I make people sick.

 And at lunch I learned that I sit on my own because I smell.

 In biology I learned that I’m fat and stupid.

 The only thing I didn’t learn in school today is why nobody helps.”

A few words at the end of the commercial revealed that this was a public service announcement about bullying in schools. It encouraged parents to teach their children how to stop it.

What? Really?

If your child is so bullied in school that he is learning he is “a piece of trash,” this is not the time to try to change the culture or the system. This is the time to extricate your child from it. It’s time for an emergency directive, a protective order, a drastic solution, whatever it takes to keep a child safe and sane. Parents shouldn’t fiddle around with a “tweak” or a “try” at such a time. An immediate solution is the only answer.

Bullying is a real problem with real consequences. It affects almost every child to some degree. I had a child who was bullied. I was bullied. My parents and grandparents and great grandparents were probably bullied.

Schools are breeding grounds for bullies because they are places where children are desperately seeking attention, love, and support. As parents, we need to handle bullying at school with critical care. In the beginning stages we can be cautious and creative in our response, allowing our children to carry most of the responsibility for dealing with the bully. But we need to be prepared to escalate our response and level of action to match the severity of the situation, even if we have to yank our children out of school to solve the problem.

Severe bullying is nothing less than an emotional beating. If someone were beating you with a stick, would you wait around to see what happened next? Would you look around to see if any onlookers cared enough to join you in the fight? Would you try to reform the bully? No. You would (and should) run like the wind. Emotional beatings are even more insidious and lasting than physical ones. Bruises fade away, but emotional scars take far longer to heal.

A couple I am close to has been walking with their daughter through a bullying situation at school for the past several years. When parental advice from home proved insufficient to turn the bullying situation around, the mother went to the school and tried to change the system. She even started a bullying club. Good for her. When that still didn’t improve the situation, she took her daughter out of school. Even better.

This is what good parents do. They get involved and they get active. They don’t wait for life to drop a heavy, irreversible blow on their kids. They stay ahead of the curve.

Another beautiful story about how to handle school bullies was recently told on Britain’s Got Talent. Thirteen-year-old Leondre Devries was bullied at school and he rapped about his experience on the show. Check out the first verse of the song he wrote:

“Please help me God, I feel so alone.

I’m just a kid, how can I take it on my own?

I’ve cried so many tears writing this song.

I’ve tried to fit in, where do I belong?

I wake up every day, don’t want to leave my home.

My momma’s asking me why I’m always alone.

Too scared to say, too scared to holler

I’m walking to school with sweat around my collar.

I’m just a kid. I don’t want no stress.

My nerves are bad. My life’s a mess.

The names they call me, they hurt real bad.

I want to tell my mom, She’s having trouble with my dad.

I feel so threat, there’s nowhere to turn.

Come to school, don’t want to fight, I want to learn.

So please Mr. Bully, tell me what I’ve done.

I have no dad. I’m living with my mom.”

Leondre endured four years of bullying, hiding it from his mother for most of that time. But, thankfully, his song didn’t end with the first verse. Because his mother found out about the bullying. That’s when things started to turn around. First, Leondre stood up to the bullies. Then he changed schools. There was no ignoring the situation. Things had gone too far. It was time for action.

At the new school, Leondre is not bullied and he is happy. That’s why his beautiful song with the anti-bulling message ends with this lovely chorus:

I’m hopeful, yes I am, hopeful for today.

Take this music and use it. Let it take you away.

And be hopeful, and He’ll make a way

I know it ain’t easy, but that’s OK.

Just be hopeful….

This performance on Britain’s Got Talent brought the judges to tears and inspired Simon Cowell to press the golden buzzer, an action reserved for just one artist each season who the judges feel deserves the right to be catapulted from a lower round directly to the live finale. That finale is this Saturday night and Leondre is a favorite to win. I’ll be rooting for him.

If you want to be inspired and “hopeful for today,” check out Leondre’s original performance here.  It’s heartfelt and moving and a testament to the great things that can happen when good parents get involved and are willing to do whatever it takes to help their children.

Until next time…be fearless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brain-Based Learning vs. Formal Academics

There are two, very different, ideas about the way children learn. One idea, advanced by the field of science, (neurology, biology, and psychology) says that learning is controlled by the healthy growth of the brain, a physiological process that occurs in all children in a progression that can’t be stopped, except by a physical or emotional calamity. In other words, despite outside factors (such as school and work), children naturally get smarter as their brains develop. We call this brain-based learning.

The second idea is forwarded by most professional educators. They say that learning is achieved when students acquire information. In other words, children graduate from one grade level to the next once they have mastery over a specific body of information. First graders graduate to second grade. Second graders graduate to third grade. And so on. We call this “formal academics.”

The two approaches differ greatly in their execution. Formal academics require a structured environment, an outside teacher, and a textbook. Brain-based learning relies on student-directed activity in a less-structured environment, where creation and exploration take precedence over systematic instruction. Formal academics prepare children for tasks ahead by teaching specific skills and relaying detailed bodies of information, while brain-based learning eschews preparation without purpose and suggests that the brain is big and mighty enough to handle daily tasks and problems as they arise.

Like most homeschool teachers, I practice a hybrid of the two approaches. But I tend to embrace brain-based learning far more than formal academics.

Formal academics are actually a fairly new phenomenon in the course of human history. It’s only been in modern times (the last 100 years) we have made the acquisition of knowledge the pinnacle of purpose for young people. Children used to go to school just a few hours a day. Family time took precedence over school. As did church. And neighbors. And chores. School is what you got to do when all the important stuff was done. It was a privilege and a luxury, not a priority.

But, you say, that was an agrarian society. Don’t we need more formal schooling in a technological age? Not really. Bill Gates knew a little something about technology. He dropped out of college. So did Stephen Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. I’m pretty sure these men learned little about creating new technologies and billions of dollars in income from a teacher or a textbook. In fact, there are legendary stories about how these men couldn’t wait to leave the confines of classrooms so they could get home to work on developing new ideas. How did they accomplish so much in  advanced fields of science and technology armed with no more formal education than a high school diploma? They did it the same way farmers, small businessmen, and families solved problems 100 years before. They put their brains to work and then watched the sparks fly.

In reality, this is how ALL people get through life, both today and throughout history: They rely on their brains. Ask any well-functioning adult how much information from their school days they use in their lives and careers and they will tell you “not much.” The small amount that IS utilized could have just as easily been learned later, when the information was needed for application. Need to write a budget? Learn accounting. Need to create a website? Learn computer science. Need to write a legal brief or business proposal? Learn English mechanics. There is a time and place for everything and the best time to acquire knowledge is when you actually need to use it.

Purposeful learning – learning that occurs as a result of a specific need — is both economical and effective. Currently, my youngest daughter, Izzy, is studying measures of weight in her math curriculum, the only “formal” curriculum we use in our homeschool. She is struggling because many of the names for liquid measurement are meaningless to her. She knows the size of a gallon because we always have a gallon of milk in our refrigerator. She knows the size of a 2-liter bottle because we always have a few bottles of pop in our closet. She knows the size of a cup because she likes to bake chocolate chip cookies. But the size of a quart and a pint remain unimportant and unlearned.

Last week I noticed Izzy had taped hand-made tabs to five different pages in her math book to mark the places that talk about pints and quarts. That’s an unusual amount of effort on her part so I figured she was getting really tired of the time it was taking to flip back in her math book for the information every time she encountered a problem concerning pints or quarts.

In an effort to help her out, I went to the grocery store and bought milk in a gallon, a quart, a pint, and a cup. This did the trick. After a couple of days of going over the various sizes, Izzy eventually committed to memory the name for each size of container.

So what’s the problem? I bought the same four containers two years ago. And also the two years before that. Each time, Izzy quickly memorized the size of each container. And then promptly forgot it. Because the learning wasn’t purposeful to her real life, there was no retention. Will she remember this time? Perhaps. But is this extreme expenditure of effort and time really worth it? Just to learn the names of a quart and a pint?

This is the problem with formal academics. They relay information on a timeline completely unrelated to the needs and interests of the child. Because there is no hook to grab and keep the child’s attention or any real need to remember what has been learned, the information much be taught over and over and over again. It takes huge amounts of life’s most important commodity –time. And the constant re-teaching fills the brain with lots of useless activity at the same time the brain is screaming to be left alone so it can engage in its natural growth process, a process that thrives on space and creativity and imagination and exploration.

Someone who brought a good deal of common sense to this discussion was Charlotte Mason, a British educator from the early 1900’s whose philosophies have been kept alive in the American homeschooling community.

Charlotte founded a chain of parent-directed schools across England utilizing teaching strategies based on brain research. The hallmarks of Charlotte’s approach to education were short lessons, no tests, and no homework. She did not like textbooks and said children should read “living books,” which are books that engage the minds and hearts of children, spurring them to think and feel. She wanted the lessons short so students would have plenty of time during the day to play, which Charlotte believed was more important than lessons because it was when students could direct their own exploration of the world around them. Charlotte did not believe children were empty vessels to be filled up with knowledge dispensed by teachers, but possessors of well-functioning brains, perfectly capable of thinking for themselves.

Today, thousands of homeschooling families follow the philosophies of Charlotte Mason. I believe they, and other adherents of brain-based education, have made a good choice.

Until next time…be fearless.

 

Education is Not the Great Equalizer. Love Is.

For the past 25 years, professional educators and politicians have been trying to level the playing field in education. The reason? No matter how wonderful the teacher, or beautiful the school, or dynamic the teaching strategies, we still find that, as a group, rich children do better in school than poor children. Children with well-educated parents do better than children with less-educated ones. Children in rich schools with highly-trained teachers do better than children in poor schools with less-experienced teachers. It’s a problem we have not been able to fix, although many education initiatives have tried to do so. Can anyone say “No Child Left Behind” or “Common Core Standards?”

Educators and politicians may have looked high and low for the answers, but they didn’t look right under their noses. They need to look no further than the homeschooling community for answers.

The research coming out of the modern homeschooling movement proves home education to not only be a superior educational choice, but it holds true, and to the same degree, for all genders, income levels, family educational backgrounds, amount of money spent on education, and the credentials (or lack of) of the teaching parent. Even more astounding is that homeschooling accomplishes this not by holding the “haves” back (as is typical in most educational initiatives), but by propelling the “have nots” forward. Check out the research: ALL children perform well in homeschooling (from 20-30 percent better than their private and public-educated counterparts) despite differences in gender, economic background, money spent on education, parent education level, and the teaching credentials of the parents. Why are there so few failures in homeschooling, even among categories of students who typically struggle in traditional schools? Because…

Love is the great equalizer.

Unlike school systems and classroom teachers, parents love their children. Most parents will sacrifice countless personal gains, spend hundreds of sleepless nights, consider every possibility imaginable, if they think it might help their children. If a child has a need or a deficiency or a weakness, parents will do everything possible to help. To the best extent they can, parents insure their children’s success at learning and life.

If a classroom teacher ever tells you she “loves” your child, or a school official tells you he has the best interest of your child in mind, don’t believe them. They don’t. Only you do. I know because I used to be a classroom teacher. I liked the kids I taught. I cared about the kids I taught. But I didn’t lie awake in bed at night trying to figure out how to make them smarter, nicer, and more productive. That activity was rightfully reserved for my own kids.

When I moved from teaching other peoples’ children to teaching my own, everything about my teaching got better. Despite a lack of salary, I now immersed myself in learning all the different teaching strategies available to me. I read books and Internet articles. I went to homeschool conventions. I listened to speakers, sorted through curriculum, joined homeschool message boards, and picked the brains of homeschooling veterans. I became a good teacher and my children became good students, far more successful than they were in classrooms presided over by the parents of someone else’s children.

As we progressed in homeschooling, I applied my energies to fixing problems as they came up and making our homeschool days more effective and appealing. If my child was unmotivated, I devised methods of motivation. If they were confused, I teached over again. If I simply couldn’t do it anymore, I hired a tutor to help me. I switched math curriculums at least 10 times. I changed the time and place of my homeschool classroom, I sought out a number of different homeschool classes and cooperatives to help teach things I couldn’t teach well at home.

I tried out both traditional and untraditional approaches to education and my teaching strategies covered the gamut from textbook approach to unit studies to unschooling. I tried teaching all day. I tried no teaching at all. And still my kids kept on learning. The consistent factors? A parent, a child, and a home.

Parents with children in traditional schools love their children just as much as homeschooling parents. And they will work just as hard to try to help them. But school systems are set up to deny them any significant input at all. And, even if they did, at the end of the day, no matter how hard people who loved the children tried to change and improve things, schools would still remain institutions, cold places that, by their very nature, can not care for or deal well with the individual needs of children. Parents, on the other hand, were perfectly and uniquely created by God to do just that.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who is struggling to homeschool her fourth child. She listed off all the things she had tried in order to motivate her daughter, an impressive list that had occupied many of her waking hours. Her current idea was to hire a recent homeschool graduate who also runs a sewing business to be a tutor. Because her daughter loves to sew, she thought the two would relate well to each other. And she planned to use the promise of sewing together as a motivational tool.

I thought this was a creative and splendid idea, a perfect example of how homeschool parents roll. We set education and life goals based on the unique needs of our children and we don’t rest well until those goals are accomplished.

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, once referred to education as “the great equalizer.” I disagree. Love is.

Until next time…Be fearless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I Became An Education Outlier

One of the reasons I started writing this blog is I was afraid to openly speak the truth about what I believed about education and homeschooling. I felt I had a unique perspective that could benefit homeschool parents, but I also knew some parents would think my position was foolish. So I was cautious in my conversations. But, with my writing, well…I’ve always been a rebel with a pen.

There was a series of definable moments in my life that shaped my education worldview and established me as an education “outlier.” Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell wrote an entire book about how one unusual experience, or one group of unusual experiences, can set people on a completely different trajectory for life. They become “outliers,” people who operate outside the norm due to the unique way in which their lives unfold.

There were four “moments” or “circumstances” that formed my view of education and established me as an education outlier. Here they are:

1. At 30 years old, I became a public school teacher.

Teaching was my second career. I was 30 years old and the mother of two children when I first stepped foot in a classroom in the role as teacher. That maturity led me to question the effectiveness of the traditional classroom learning environment from the beginning. I could immediately see that a “one size fits all” approach to education did not fit all and I was troubled that students had to find their place in the system because there was no way the system could find its place in the student.

I also found the parent in me constantly questioning the teacher in me. Much of what I was taught as a teacher, and some of what was required by my school district, did not jive with what I knew to be true and beneficial as a mother. I began to see how schooling was often at odds with parenting and how the school environment inadvertently undermined or ignored the desires of parents. When the choice was between doing what the teacher in me said to do as opposed to what the parent in me said to do, I chose the parent every time. Pretty soon I realized parents made better teachers than trained professionals.

2. School made my oldest son sick.

There’s nothing like a crisis to help a person see circumstances clearly and sort out priorities. Just one month into my oldest son’s kindergarten year, we discovered he had a serious illness that flared with school-related anxiety.

Having a sick kid has a way of completing destroying everything you used to think was important. Who cares if you packed the backpack right or got the homework done, when your child is suffering? Who cares about getting to school on time, or even getting there at all? Even important things, like learning to read and write, seemed unnecessary at the time.

The reality of my son’s illness forced me into homeschooling and it inspired me to set aside what everyone else was telling me about how to do it. Instead, I tried to focus on my children’s needs and giving them the healthiest, happiest, and sweetest childhoods possible.

3. My daughter was not allowed to stand up to eat her lunch in the school cafeteria.

After we pulled our oldest son out of school, our oldest daughter, then in second grade, asked us to homeschool her. We were surprised. We thought she loved school. She had lots of friends, loved her teacher, and did well. But she described for us an atmosphere for learning and living that we didn’t appreciate.

One of the most eye-opening stories involved the cafeteria. Having been a classroom teacher, I had first-hand knowledge of the de-humanizing environment of the school lunchroom. It has always reminded me of a cross between the orphanage dining room depicted in the movie “Oliver” (where the little orphan boy pitifully raises his bowl and asks for just one more spoonful of gruel) and a Nazi-run concentration camp.

In the school cafeteria, children are herded in single file, rushed through a serving line, and given about 15 minutes to eat their food. They sit crowded shoulder-to-shoulder at long tables facing each other while lunchroom monitors patrol,  telling the children things like “don’t talk with your mouth full” and “don’t mix your food together.” (Our son once had to sit at the “naughty table” in the school cafeteria because he stirred two foods together.)

School lunchrooms smell bad and the noise is deafening. At the end of their 15-minute lunch, the children line back up single file to march out of the cafeteria in lock-step. Keep in mind that THIS is the time of day that most school children say is their favorite.

My daughter hated the lunch room food, couldn’t finish eating in the 15 minutes provided to her, and was so short that she couldn’t comfortably sit on the bench at her table and also eat the food in front of her. Inexplicably, the lunchroom monitors would not allow my daughter to sit on her knees or stand at the table to eat her lunch, proving to me once-and-for-all that there is nothing so heartless, useless, and ridiculous than an institution.

4. My kids starting beating the system—at the system’s own game.

One of the reasons homeschool parents are hesitant to get too creative in their instruction is that they know, at some point, their children will have to come back into the system if they want to go to college. They will need to take the college entrance exams and they will need to be prepared for the university learning environment. So, while I was sure my homeschool was growing my children’s brains and preparing them well for life, I remained a little nervous about how they would do when they had to return to traditional classrooms, homework, and tests in college.

You know how some people know where they were the moment the Challenger space shuttle exploded? Or the day the World Trade Center fell? I remember where I was when my oldest children told me the scores they got on the college entrance exams. Those scores validated the choices we had made for our children’s education. They meant we could keep on doing what we were doing with our younger children. And they convinced me that untraditional forms of education work as well, if not better, than traditional forms of schooling, even when measured by academia’s own most beloved measuring stick – the test.

By any measure, all three of my oldest children have done well in the university setting. The fact that they didn’t take tests or complete traditional assignments during their homeschooling years caused no issues at all. Instead, it’s likely their independent and creative minds not only helped them pick up these simple tasks without difficulty, but also embrace the other, more complicated, assignments presented to them in college as well.

These four circumstances of my life established me as an education outlier.

Until next time…be fearless.

 

Building Character in Homeschooling (Part 2)

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a fail-safe, five-step program for building character in children? A handbook we could buy that would lay it all out? Or a class we could enroll our children in that actually made a difference?

Unfortunately, character building is too complex and time demanding to be so easily accomplished. Instead, it’s the result of a series of learnable “moments” spread over a period of years. Each of these moments is unique to the child and his environment. And nobody really knows the results until the child is far into adulthood.

Still, there are some aspects of character building that appear to be universal. And all of them have implications for homeschooling. Here are three of them:

Good character is not innate. It is learned.

Good character is a learned behavior. Children learn it from the people around them. If you surround children with people of poor character the odds are pretty strong that they will embrace at least some of the poor character traits for themselves. The converse holds true if you surround children with people of good character. Parents should be vigilant about making sure their children have good influences in their lives.

As a group, the people with the poorest character are children. And it’s not even close. Children have undeveloped moral codes. They don’t always understand the essence of right and wrong. And they are often too self-absorbed to even care. Sending your children to school so they can spend all day learning character from other children is a mistake. Unless you (the homeschooling parent) exhibit less character than a third grader, then homeschooling is an excellent choice for building character.

Good character is grasped and executed as people become convinced it assists in the accomplishment of personal goals and rewards.

This view of character may seem a little jaded, but it’s the reality of how people, both young and old, function.

Because young children are so pre-occupied with immediate self-gratification, most early character progress comes as a result of understanding that good character leads to immediate, personal gain. A very young child soon understands that he can avoid punishment if he engages in certain behaviors. Or he can impress a person if he uses a certain word. Or he can win a reward if he executes a task in a diligent way. These are the first baby steps of character building.

As people mature, they are able to see the benefits of good character as it relates to long-term goals. The goals may seem more noble, but they still stem from a desire for personal gain. The student who diligently does his homework so he can get a good grade. The athlete who practices hard so he can help his team. The young professional who throws himself into his job so he can support his family. Even religious people oftentimes engage in the best behaviors because of the ultimate, personal rewards involved – a “clean slate,” a place in heaven, community with God.

Since God leads his people with exhortations, promises, and systems of rewards and punishments, I think it’s reasonable for parents to institute similar methods for character building in their children. In young children, the rewards must be concrete and immediate for good behavior – a moment of praise, a hug, a privilege. As children get older, we can start to reason with our children, explaining the benefits and giving them reasons to delay short-term gratification in order to achieve long-term goals. This is also the time when we can start talking more about how the pursuit of God ultimately leads to personal happiness.

Acknowledging man’s selfish motivation in exercising character helps parents to know how to teach it. Saying to a child “do this because I said so,” probably isn’t very helpful because it leaves the wrong impression about character. It suggests that good character is something we do under orders and for no reason. Instead, we should always be making the connection between good behavior and reward for our children. They must learn, through exhortation, demonstration and personal experience, that at all behavior has consequences and that their choices define their future happiness.

Character building can be accelerated by placing children in activities that inspire and require good character.

Parents should always be looking for ways to motivate and engage children in character building activities. In our family, we often turn to sports for this, but there are other types of activities that can do it well.

In looking for character-building activities, there are three characteristics that I feel are essential for effective outcomes.

1. The activity must be fun or engaging. The activity must be able to grab the attention of a child and hold it over a period of time. Things that mom and dad would like to use to build character – like academics and chores– often don’t work because they don’t engage the child.

2. The activity must have positive consequences for success and negative consequences for failure. It can be difficult for parents to see a system of positive and negative consequence being meted out for their children, but it’s critical to the learning process. In sports, children begin to understand that when they don’t practice, they don’t play. When they don’t play well, they sit the bench. When the entire team plays poorly, they loose. Eventually, the child learns that these negative consequences can be replaced by positive consequences if he (and his team mates) begins to apply good character to the process.

3. Participation in the activity must have a big pay-off in the end. This step is the key to the process working from beginning to end. The nature of the activity engages the child in the beginning and the consequences adjust behavior over time. But the child will not stick with something unless there is a substantial pay-off in the end.

Sports have held that appeal for our children. Both the personal and corporate (team) results are easily measurable and children can see how their contribution has affected the results. The fun and satisfaction of going through this character building process with peers increases its appeal and impact.

However, keep in mind, the sports team (or whatever activity you choose) has to have a serious component to it. If the activity is “just for fun,” there is no big pay-off in the end because the child sees no real meaning or significance to what he is doing. The fun component grabs his attention, but it’s the significance of what he’s doing that will motivate him to devote himself to positive outcomes over a period of time.

If your child is not sports minded, there are many other activities that have the potential to be excellent character building opportunities. Theater and dance are two of my favorites because of the challenging performance component. Other possibilities are gymnastics, Bible-quizzing, and academic challenge teams, to name just a few. What all these activities have in common is they immediately engage students because of the team component. And they inspire and require good character because of the competition and/or performance component.

In my homeschool, I give more priority to these kinds of activities than I do to academics. If my children can learn to be self-disciplined and develop a strong work ethic, they can do anything – in school or beyond.

Until next time…Be fearless.

 

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.

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.