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.

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.

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.