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

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

So I stole it.

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

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

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

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

What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this is so not true.

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…be fearless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

What does this mean for homeschool teachers?

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

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

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

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

1. Organized Sports

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

2. Playground and Lawn Games (Unorganized Sports)

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

3. Music Creation

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

4. Card Games

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

5. Strategy Board Games

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

6. Video and Computer Games (Strategy and Simulation)

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

7. Video and Computer Games (Brain Building)

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

8. Reading

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

9. Watching Video, Television, and Film

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

10. Telling or Writing Stories

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

11. Art

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

12. Creative Play

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

13. Performing Arts

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

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

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

Until next time…Be fearless.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

1. Leadership

2. Digital Literacy

3. Communication

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

5. Entrepreneurship

6. Global Citizenship

7. Problem Solving

8. Team working

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

Is it even close?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…Be fearless.

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.

Unleashing the Brain…and Other Homeschooling Thoughts

Because we all struggle with doubt, sometimes a crisis in our lives is the one thing that can propel us to set aside fear and do something truly remarkable. A failed business can lead to an exciting new startup. A serious disease can lead to a cutting edge remedy.  A failed relationship can lead to a wonderful new friend. Infertility can lead to a glorious adoption.   

This is the way we started homeschooling. In kindergarten, my oldest son got sick. For four years we tried to balance the demands of our son’s illness with the demands of our son’s school. When we just couldn’t stand the stress of it any longer, we threw in the towel and tried something revolutionary in our community. We started homeschooling, a choice that ultimately changed the lives of everyone in our family…and got our son healthy again in the process. 

This same sort of crisis led to our decision to homeschool our children in new and different ways. The crisis started on the first day of homeschooling my third child. Hello world….meet Jesse. 

Everyone who knows me has heard “the Jesse stories.” At five years old, Jesse could run faster, jump higher and cause more trouble than all the neighborhood kids put together. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t mean, or disrespectful, or destructive, at least not on purpose. He was a cute kid with a friendly personality that everybody liked. Take a look at the cute kid in the photo….photo

What’s not to like, right? I call Jesse a “troublemaker” because Jesse didn’t want to do anything the way everybody else did it. He didn’t want to sit in a chair unless his feet were higher than his head. He didn’t want to walk across a street because he would rather explore the concrete tunnel underneath. He didn’t want to play with his little kid toys because the big boy toys — things like full-size skateboards and power tools — were so much more interesting. We are probably the only family in the neighborhood who once got a visit from the police because they saw Jesse playing in our garage and were afraid he was going to hurt himself.

As you might guess, when it came to school, Jesse was the prototypical “reluctant learner.”  On the first day of kindergarten, when I pulled out the electric skillet to fry apples (so we could talk about the letter “A”), he looked at me like I was crazy. He sat there at the kitchen counter (with his feet higher than his head) and asked me repeatedly, “Can I go outside and play now?”

I tried to teach Jesse to read “in 100 easy lessons” and 100 turned into 200. Then I tried Hooked on Phonics. And Bob Jones. And Sing, Spell, Read, and Write. Nothing worked.

Over the course of the next 10 years, doing school with Jesse was such a painful and unproductive process that I did as little as my pride and good sense would allow me to do. I simplified the lessons. I decreased the lessons. I scaled back my expectations. We did so little school I wondered if I could get arrested for truancy.

So, if Jesse wasn’t doing school, what was he doing? He played. A lot. He lived to go outside. He rode his skateboard and his bike. He explored the neighborhood. He built things. He took up soccer and got good at it. He played video games. He played the drums. He wrote digital music. He had fun.

And something happened that I didn’t expect. Jesse got smart. Really smart.  He learned to read well and count his money.  He developed interests that were typically the interests of smart kids. Interests like politics and finance. He not only found his way in the world around him, but he developed a beautiful mind. He was happy. 

But there was still one mountain yet to climb: we wanted Jesse to go to college. This presented a definite problem. Jesse had zero study skills, little foundational knowledge of core subject matter, and no interest in anything academic. How could a child like this thrive in a purely academic environment? We were about to find out.

His junior year of high school, we enrolled Jesse in a couple of classes at the local community college just to see what would happen. He passed. After that, he took the college entrance exam. He got the score he needed. After high school he enrolled as a full-time student in a private, liberal arts college not known for easy coursework. He did well.

How could this be? How could a child like Jesse beat educators at their own game? Because Jesse had something very special. He had a God inspired, God created, fully functioning brain. When that splendid brain was properly stimulated and given the freedom to grow, it naturally began to do amazing things.

Here’s the deal with the brain: it has been designed to grow and learn in natural environments, apart from the suffocating structure of traditional classrooms. Fortunately, the brain is so advanced and adaptive, so capable of meeting every intellectual need at every turn, that it CAN function and grow in almost ANY environment. But the place it loves, the place where the childhood brain thrives, is in low-stress, highly creative environments where children can play and apply and imagine and create. Places like playgrounds and back yards and bedrooms and ball fields. If you don’t believe me, consider this: the brain grows faster and children learn more during the first five years of life than during any other five-year period. It accomplishes this with no textbooks, no classrooms, and no professional teachers. The human brain learns best in an unhurried and nurturing place where mommy and daddy are at the helm and there’s a sign on the door that says “home.”  

Inadvertently, my husband and I created a great learning environment for Jesse, one perfectly suited for his personality and sensibilities. We had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming, but, eventually, we gave up on the long assignments, structured lessons, and complicated curriculums. Instead, we gave Jesse the time and freedom to pursue his own interests and the love and support to make the journey possible. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we were putting Jesse on the fast track to future success in college and life.

Today, we see evidence of Jesse’s bright and enterprising mind in almost everything he does. He does all the things proud parents want their kids to do, things like make good grades and work hard. But, where he really shines is in the ridiculously clever and creative ways he attacks life. The same spark that spurred Jesse to forge his own path as a little boy is still burning brightly. The best thing I did as a homeschool mom was not snuff out that spark.

There’s a fascinating statement by Michelangelo that homeschooling parents like to quote. It goes like this: I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  It’s a reminder that parents and teachers are not in the creation business. We don’t create anything, build anything, form anything, fill anything up. That’s God’s job. Ours is just to love and nurture our children, holding their hands as God’s creating work unfolds before our eyes.

If you have a child like Jesse, one that scoffs at traditional studies and insists on making his own way, don’t be afraid. It’s quite possible he might be leading you down a different, but very good, road to personal success and happiness.

Until next time…Be fearless.