Archive | Homeschooling

Homeschooling Curricula: Try, Ditch, Repeat

So, I’ve been wanting to document our progression through various homeschooling curricula, thinking it might be useful to someone out there.  The biggest thing I’ve learned about homeschooling, by far, is that it is such a process of trial and error.  If there’s any family out there who began with a certain method or program or curriculum and stuck with it year after year, then I’d say they’re either extremely fortunate to have hit pay dirt right out of the gate, or they’re foolishly inflexible.

When I began homeschooling Lilah two years ago, everything was really a shot in the dark for me.  All I had to go on as far as choosing curricula for her was the recommendations of people I knew who had homeschooled, and the charter school we were enrolled with at that time – which charter school was also a choice I made purely on recommendation.  Recommendations, I have figured out, though, are only a jumping off point.  Just because a program works well for some kids or some families, and just because that program may get a lot of 5-star reviews from people who review such things, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a good fit for every kid and every family.

Towards the end of my first year of homeschooling, I bought Cathy Duffy’s 102 Top Picks for Homeschooling Curriculum.  Cathy Duffy is known as a homeschooling guru, and her specialty is writing comprehensive reviews of homeschooling curricula.  Although she clearly has a bias in favor of Christian homeschooling and curricula, she does at least make note in her reviews of whether a program is Christian, Christian-friendly, or secular.  When I read her book of Top Picks, I rejoiced in having it all laid out for me.  It helped me figure out my own educational philosophy and goals, what kind of learners my girls are, and curricula that would (in theory, anyway) fit all of that.  I went into the next school year, when I added the twins to the mix, excited and fully prepared to have a smooth and productive school year, having painstakingly chosen curricula that would (supposedly) be a perfect fit for us.

It was only a matter of a couple of months, however, before most of the programs and materials I had so carefully purchased on Cathy Duffy’s recommendations, were ditched in frustration.  Everyone was miserable and frustrated and not really making much academic progress, so I did something a little drastic and put most of the stuff away and decided to take a little bit of an unschooling approach.  Everyone was happier, but it created stress in a different way because now I was asking myself, “Am I an unschooler now?  What does that mean?  Am I unschooling the right way?”  Also, by the end of the year, the girls had really made very little progress in math, and that worried me (because, as I’ve said, I tend to operate on an “If I died tomorrow and Michael had to put them back in public school …” basis).  So I felt like this school year, we needed to find some kind of balance where we (and by “we,” I mean “I”) would not be applying labels to ourselves or trying to live up to those labels, we would be more structured in our approach with the simple goal of growing and making progress, but the girls would still be active participants in deciding on a weekly routine and in taking responsibility for their own learning.

So far, almost two months in, the school year is going well.  It’s more hectic than ever now that I’m also homeschooling Finn and Scarlett, but I feel like we’ve settled into a routine that works for us and have found some programs that we’re happy with.

So, without further ado, here’s a rundown of what we’ve used, and how these programs have worked for us:

MATH:

Singapore Math: This math program was the first I used, or tried to use, with Lilah, on the recommendation of a friend.  It’s a very highly rated math curriculum, based on how math is taught in Singapore, a country that apparently scores really high in math in global standardized testing.  It’s definitely a “rigorous” curriculum.  We ran into problems right away with it, though, because Lilah was already struggling with math (in part because of being dyslexic, which I didn’t know at the time).  Also, it was frustrating for me because it wasn’t the way I learned math, so it was very difficult for me to understand a lot of the lessons, let alone to teach them to Lilah.  For purposes of homeschooling, I think this could be a really good program for a kid who is already strong in math, and it could be a good choice for a young child who is just learning math (in other words, who hasn’t already learned math a different way).  However, it’s not such a great choice, despite its ratings, for a kid who struggles with math, because the rigor and intensity can be overwhelming and lead to feelings of defeat.  I also think, overall, that it’s a difficult program to adopt after a child has already been learning math according to a different method or program.  In the end, this was not a good fit for us.

Math-U-See: This math program utilizes manipulatives and visuals to make math more concrete and multi-sensory, and the lessons are all on DVDs that are purchased with the different levels of the program.  I actually liked this program for the most part.  I loved that the lessons are taught by a teacher by way of video.  My girls didn’t like it, however, because the video lessons can be rather long, and the program is very worksheet-based.  So: boring.  It ended up being one more thing for them to drag their feet about, and I don’t see the value of remaining committed to a program that’s causing more frustration than payoff.  Also, although Math-U-See is a secular math curriculum, it comes from a Christian-based company, and there are occasional Christian references thrown into the lessons.  Not a huge deal, but irritating to anyone not interested in faith-based education.

Life of Fred:  This math program is very different from most other math programs out there in that it’s story-based.  There are no formal lessons; instead, each lesson is incorporated into an ongoing story about a five-year-old math genius named Fred, the premise being that kids learn math better and easier by seeing how it applies to real-life situations.  At the end of each chapter is a list of word problems for the student to solve, using what has been explained in the story.  The story is entertaining, and my girls were very excited about it at first because it was such a complete switching of gears.  After awhile, though, the novelty wore off, especially for Lilah, for whom the “lessons” were just too abstract, being sort of hidden within a story.  Even for Daisy and Annabelle, who generally do pretty well in math (although neither is very fond of it), it grew confusing after a time, because it was often hard to connect the word problems to the story.  Like Singapore Math, I think this program may work better if it’s used from the outset of learning math, and like Math-U-See, there are Christian references sprinkled here and there.  We stuck with Life of Fred for the remainder of the school year last year, but at the end of the school year I didn’t feel that any of the girls had made very much progress in math at all, and that worried me.

CTC Math: This is what we are using now, and I love it!  So do the girls!  There are no textbooks or materials to buy; it’s simply a subscription to video lessons online.  There are no worksheets, either.  Each lesson is short and sweet, which I think is absolutely essential in order to hold the student’s attention and foster success.  When lessons are too long, kids get bored and distracted, and less is absorbed and retained.  In the video lessons, there is no teacher standing in front of a whiteboard (like in Math-U-See); it’s a cool dude with an Aussie accent talking, but all you see is computer graphics demonstrating what he’s talking about.  Each lesson is on average about ten minutes long, and then there is a set of questions to answer/problems to solve.  Paper and pencil may be used, but the final answer is entered online and feedback is given immediately for each answer.  Parents set the “passing” percentage, which allows the student to move on to the next lesson/level, and each lesson builds on concepts taught and mastered in previous lessons.  If the passing percentage is not met, the student can rewatch the lesson as many times as necessary, and try more problems, until the concept is mastered.  It seems to cut out a lot of the fluff, so lessons go pretty quickly.   It’s not unusual for my girls to complete four or five lessons each day, and that takes less than an hour.  Daisy and Annabelle did not have a good handle, I felt, on sixth-grade math at the beginning of the year, but with this program, they’ve both mastered sixth-grade math already and are now doing pre-algebra.  It takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of me, because I’m not teaching them math, the program is, which is a relief, because math has never been my strong suit.  They’re learning it on their own and working at whatever pace they want to.  So far, they’re all pretty motivated – I haven’t had to hassle any of them at all to do math.  I know this could all change, of course, but right now I will say that this is the best math program we’ve found.

Touch Math: I’m using the pre-k level with Scarlett right now, very informally (I’ve also tried it with Finn, but it hasn’t gone so well, mainly because it’s so difficult to convince him to sit at a table and do any sort of work with me.)  For now, it’s a good program for Scarlett to get her comfortable with number recognition, counting, one-to-one correspondence, and simple addition and subtraction, but I doubt we’ll stick with it for the long term.  I’d like to get her started on the kindergarten level of CTC Math next year.

SCIENCE:

Imagine my surprise when I Googled “Best Homeschooling Science Programs” and discovered that it is actually necessary to specify “Best Secular Homeschooling Science Programs.”  I’m not kidding.  If you don’t specify secular, the default search results for homeschooling science programs are Christian-based and Christian-informed.

Elemental Science:  This is an award-winning science curriculum that has levels from preschool through high school.  It’s very much in line with a classical or literature-based education philosophy.  You purchase the core textbooks, and then there are a plethora of third-party books that must be purchased (through Amazon or other sources).  We used Biology for the Grammar Stage for a while last year but ended up not liking it much.  My girls were bored with it, and I was disappointed because it didn’t really go into much depth on the topics; each week we seemed to just skim the surface of things.  That said, I think this is a really good program, and the problems we had with it were probably simply because I chose a level that was too young for them.  I can’t say what kind of engagement and challenge the more advanced levels provide because we didn’t use any (although I did purchase Earth Science and Astronomy for the Logic Stage, but never used it; we may give it a try next year).

R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey:  We are using Biology 2 this year and loving it!  I am so impressed with this program.  It is very comprehensive, very engaging, and very hands-on.  Every week there is a reading portion, a practical lab, a microscope lab, capped off with “Show What You Know,” which can be administered like a quiz if that floats your boat, but I like to sit down with the girls and just verbally go over the questions and discuss what we learned over the week.  There are a good amount of materials that have to be purchased to do all the labs (including, among other things, a good microscope, and preserved frogs; we have three dead frogs sitting in a box waiting to be dissected).  The Student Workbook, which serves as a textbook and has all the lab report forms, etc., is HUGE, and a lot of material is covered, but it’s not dry or boring at all.  We are all really enjoying it, and learning a lot.  The only criticism I have, if you can call it a criticism, is that Biology 2, the level we are doing this year, is as high as this program goes.  They don’t offer anything beyond middle school-level science, and I wish they did.

LANGUAGE ARTS:

Growing With Grammar; Soaring With Spelling; Winning With Writing:  I used these with Lilah the first year I homeschooled her.  It’s an okay program.  Nothing super impressive about it; it’s your basic grammar/spelling/writing curriculum.  A little dry, and less than engaging, so, in the long run, I don’t know that it really utilizes anything special that makes it all meaningful for the student.

Essentials in Writing: I used this with all three girls for a while last year.  It utilizes video lessons and workbooks.  None of us cared for it.  The guy who teaches the video lessons isn’t that great, the lessons are sprinkled with biblical references, and in the end, it’s just another program that teaches diagramming sentences (and really, what is the point of this?), etc.  Didn’t care for it.

Spelling You See: Produced by the same folks who offer Math-U-See, this spelling curriculum has an interesting method of teaching spelling.  Each week the student reads an entry that is a couple of paragraphs long.  Within the entry are a number of words that are highlighted in different colors, and those are the spelling words for the week.  The same entry is read on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and the spelling words copied by the student and the segments of each spelling word color coded in highlighter according to certain spelling rules, and on Friday, the student writes the spelling words from dictation.  It’s an interesting concept, but it was sort of like slow torture.  The twins were completely bored with it, and Lilah struggled.  She could copy the words perfectly day after day, but when it came to writing them from dictation, it all fell apart.  I really am grateful to this program, actually, for being the catalyst that brought me to the realization that Lilah’s struggles were attributed to something which turned out to be dyslexia/dysgraphia.  In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that having kids memorize spelling words, testing them on those words, and then moving on to a new list of spelling words, is not really a very good way to teach spelling, so we ditched this program a couple of months into the school year.  We actually don’t use a spelling program anymore (except Lilah, with whom I’m using a program that addresses dyslexia; more about that below).  I think the best way for kids to learn how to spell once they’ve got the fundamentals down is just by writing and reading.

Writing Strands: This is what we’re using now, and the jury is still out on this one.  The philosophy behind this one is that kids learn to write well by learning how to follow instructions and by actual writing, rather than by learning to diagram sentences, recognize parts of speech and sentence types, etc.  That’s what appealed to me about this program: the hands-on learn by doing part, but the girls and I are finding it to be a little slow going and boring.  I’m not sure we’ll stick with it.

I’ve heard great things about Brave Writer, but now is not a great time for us to take on a whole different program since we’re undertaking a big move in a few weeks that will necessitate putting school on temporary hiatus.  I may give Brave Writer a try once we’re settled in our new digs, or I may look for a creative writing class that the girls can take with other homeschoolers.

So, writing is actually the one subject that I haven’t yet found a good fit for.  I think I’m a pretty decent writer, but teaching how to write well is a challenge, and I feel like writing well is so important in life, but it’s also hard to come by.  So, the search goes on.

DYSLEXIA-SPECIFIC READING AND SPELLING:

Barton Reading: Barton is pretty much the gold standard in dyslexia circles.  It’s an Orton-Gillingham based program, which I will not even try to explain (but you can read about it here), but it’s really an excellent approach to teaching reading and spelling not only to dyslexic students, but really to anyone, because it breaks words down into their parts and gives students to tools to understand why words are built the way they are, and how letters interact with each other to form different sounds.  I used Barton with Lilah for several months and found it to be very effective.  However, it’s also very expensive and very time-intensive, as each lesson requires the teacher/parent to watch instructional videos that teach how to teach each lesson.  A few months back, we switched to:

All About Reading/All About Spelling: While this program, unlike Barton, was not developed, nor is it marketed, specifically with dyslexia in mind, it is an Orton-Gillingham based program, so it is an excellent program to use with dyslexic students.  I like it much better than Barton because it’s far less expensive, it incorporates more fun activities so it’s less dry, and it’s a scripted, ready to teach out of the box program, requiring no special instruction for the teacher/parent.  Unlike Barton, too, AAR/AAS teaches reading and spelling separately, which I like.  As I said, I think the Orton-Gillingham approach is a superior way to teach any child reading and spelling, so I’m also using the preschool level with Scarlett now, and she loves it.

HISTORY/GEOGRAPHY:

We haven’t used a formal program until this year.  The first year I had Lilah at home, we studied California history using California History For Kids, which is an excellent book full of information and activities.

Last year, the girls and I read together A Young People’s History of the United States, also excellent (I highly recommend this book).  It was geat reading that led to a lot of deep discussions of both historical and modern social issues, and throughout the year we detoured into further reading elsewhere on certain topics (like the Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving), as well as watching documentaries.  I felt like we covered a lot of good ground in U.S. History.

Trail Guide to U.S. Geography: This is what we are using this year, and I am pretty impressed with it.  We are spending the year touring the United States by region, beginning with New England and working our way south and west, covering two states each week.  The program is pretty comprehensive and multi-level; I love that all three girls are covering the same material each week, but at different levels (the twins are more advanced and so their assignments are written for middle school level, while Lilah’s is elementary school level).  For each state, the girls do mapping as well as research on various characteristics of the state and notable people from that state (so there is a bit of history incorporated as well).  The girls have learned to use a desk atlas and to read maps, which is cool.  To make it even more fun, we try to cook a dish or two each week from the states we learned about that week.  Next year we’ll move on to Trail Guide to World Geography.

OTHER STUFF:

Handwriting Without Tears: This is an excellent program that teaches printing and cursive writing.  The three older girls are using it for cursive for the second year running (they all learned basic cursive when they were still in school, but I appreciate the practice they get with this), and Scarlett is learning to print with this program.

Touch, Type, Read and Spell: This is a program that teaches touch typing, and it’s also supposed to improve spelling as the student learns proper keyboarding.  My girls use this program totally independently, and I can see the value with regard to keyboarding.  The twins are already pretty good spellers, and Lilah’s spelling difficulties are being addressed in another way, so I’m not sure if this program is useful to us in that particular way.

Tinker Crate: This is just a subscription that provides a new science/engineering project once a month.  My girls love it!

Raddish Kids:  This is another subscription I signed up for, and this one is about food and cooking.  Once a month a box is delivered to us that contains themed recipes (for instance, our August box was inspired by the Rio Olympics and had recipes for Brazillian dishes), a shopping list, a culinary lesson, and dinner table activities.  We look forward to receiving our box every month!

***

So, there you have it.  I feel like we are having a pretty great year of learning and growth this year, but it’s a lot, and it’s all on me.  While I am happy with the materials and programs we are using, I really am hoping that once we settle in Oregon, where there is apparently a much stronger secular homeschooling network, I can find a co-op to involve ourselves in or classes the kids can take with other homeschooled kids.  Finding a strong homeschooling network is the final frontier for us.

 

Homeschooling: Lessons From the Trenches

It’s hard to believe, but we are already embarking on our fourth week of the school year.  This is my third year homeschooling, but only my first year homeschooling five kids (counting Scarlett, which I do since she follows me around all day saying, “Mommy, will you do school with me now?  Mommy, can we do school now?”).  I remember back when I was new to this homeschooling gig and only homeschooling one kid, and thinking, “Wow, I have no idea how anyone manages to homeschool multiple kids at different ages and learning levels.”  But here I am, doing exactly that, and let me tell you: it’s pretty much as hairy as I imagined it must be.  Don’t be fooled by my Instagram photos; they capture but a slice of our homeschooling life.  Between those photos are sweat, tears, a little yelling, and plenty of angst.  It has truly become a full-time job for me, and although it’s not all easy and fun, I do feel like it’s the right thing for my kids at this point in time.

I want to write a post about the specific programs we’ve tried and ditched and what we’re using now, but that will have to be a separate post, and who knows when I’ll get around to writing it.  Right now, I just want to document where we are on this road – you know, for solidarity with those of you who are traveling a similar road and maybe are looking for something beyond the typical homeschooling blogs that show sun-dappled children creating magical art in obvious harmony with the universe.

So, first, let me say that I don’t do grade-specific homeschooling.  My big thing is meeting my kids where they are, and going from there.  Grade levels are arbitrary, and I think they tend to do a disservice to kids by setting up an assembly line environment of learning, where every kid is expected to progress at a prescribed pace.  That’s not what I want for my kids.  Unfortunately, the three older girls – but mostly the twins – have been sufficiently brainwashed by public school that they are having a hard time letting go of the whole grade level thing.  Annabelle, especially, insists that she’s in seventh grade; it seems very important to her to hold on to this status.  (Frankly, if I died today and Michael put them back in public school, I don’t feel like Annabelle or Daisy would be quite ready for seventh grade; as I’ve mentioned before, they have a late September birthday and started kindergarten before they were 5, something I regret.)

Although I am not wed to grade levels, they are always floating somewhere on the edge of my consciousness, because I do operate on that whole “If I died today and Michael put them back in public school” mentality.  So, although I very much try to meet them where they are and help them progress and grow from there, I do worry about whether they are “keeping up.”  Which is a total mind-fuck.  But, hey, so is motherhood.

Anyway, I feel like last year we slacked a little too much.  I don’t want my kids to be miserable learners; I don’t want it to feel coerced to them.  I dream about being that homeschooling family with the sun-dappled children creating magical art in obvious harmony with the universe.  I gave them a lot of say last year in how we would do things, and I backed off on what I would require them to do.  In some ways it was good; it reduced the stress and pressure for all of us somewhat.  It allowed them to take charge of their own learning to a degree.  But in truth, there are just some kids who will do as little as possible because that’s their nature (and I’m not naming names, but one of their names rhymes with Bannabelle, and the other isn’t Kevin, Joey, Daisy, Finn, or Scarlett).  At the end of the school year, I had mixed feelings about what we accomplished, and I went into this school year wanting very much to push them a little harder while still attempting to make it fun and engaging.  I want to keep them curious, not burn them out.  It’s a difficult balance to strike.

Here’s where probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned comes in.  I stumbled on a blog post a while ago while I was killing time on the web – I wish I had saved it, but I didn’t, and can’t seem to find it now, so I apologize for not being able to give credit where credit is due – that said something like “Stop trying to be so committed to labels.”  It was a post about homeschooling, and the author talked about how our kids don’t actually give a shit if they are being unschooled, radically unschooled, schooled in the Classical or Charlotte Mason method, or whatever.  It’s we homeschooling parents who get so caught up in labels and methods (and outside of homeschooling, this tendency to want to be committed to some label/ideology exists in parenting itself).  It’s all well and fine to follow our hearts and educate, and indeed parent, our kids in the way we feel best serves them, but when we get so caught up in labels, it tends to create a few problems:

  • It sets up a situation in which we then worry about if we’re doing it the right way;
  • It sets up a situation in which it’s easy to pass judgment on other parents who are doing it differently than we are, because obviously, they’re not doing it the right way;
  • It tends to close us off from families who do it differently, so we deprive ourselves of opportunities to see how diverse the homeschooling world is – just as it should be.

This was a revelation to me because I think I was expending a whole lot of energy trying to convert myself to a label or homeschooling ideology, and it was just creating more stress and worry for me about whether I was doing homeschooling the right way.  Guess what?  There is no right way.  This has taken a lot of pressure off of me, praise Zeus.

Another lesson that has repeatedly been reinforced for me is flexibility.  If something isn’t working, I have to be willing to make changes.  Obviously, consistency is important, but remaining committed to a particular method or program that isn’t bringing forth positive results is counterproductive.

Anyway.  So I ramped up the expectations a bit this year.  The girls and I still regularly confer about how it’s all going, and we tweak things as we go, and while things are far from perfect, I feel pretty good about what we’re doing.

Homeschooling Finn has been tough.  I pulled him out of school last January because things had become so overwhelmingly negative in first grade, and it was exacerbating his negative behaviors, negatively impacting his self-esteem, and creating a horrendous amount of stress for me.  I thought I could turn things around with him fairly swiftly with, you know, love.  That didn’t work.  I think he was a little confused and bewildered for a while after we pulled him – although he was very unhappy at school, he didn’t understand why suddenly he was no longer going to school.  He was very, very resistant to sitting down with me and doing any sort of work.  His negative behaviors didn’t lessen.  His negative behaviors mainly consist of tantrums; he is easily upset and has little ability to control his emotions, so he tends to throw tantrums at the slightest frustration or upset.  I asked the advice of other parents who homeschool kids with Ds, and was advised by many of them to just “deschool” for a while – meaning, just back completely off from anything having to do with “school” and let him decompress for a while.  I must confess that that was hard for me to do because I felt like in letting him just play all day, I wasn’t doing my job as a homeschooling parent.  But I let him be for a long time – pretty much the rest of the school year.

Now, I’m trying to have somewhat of a routine with him.  We work on the fundamentals: reading, math (and by math, I mean number recognition, counting, one-to-one correspondence), and printing.  He is still often resistant, and very distractable, so it’s difficult to keep him on task for more than a few minutes at a time.  So we work in five or ten-minute increments throughout the day.  I worry a lot, because he has lost so much ground, and I’m not even sure if I can truly help him grow and learn to his best ability, but at least I know that he’s in an environment in which he’s loved and valued and cared for, and any movement forward is progress, right?

As I said, Scarlett is right there in the fray with us.  She’s so ripe for learning, it makes my teeth hurt.  So I’m working on the fundamentals with her, too, and it’s really a joy to watch her soak it all in so enthusiastically.

I hope to get to that other post soon.  For now, peace out.

 

School Year Redux

Here we are again, with yet another school year behind us.  It felt a little anticlimactic for us this year, as Joey was the only one finishing up a year of conventional school; there wasn’t that feeling of counting down to summer.  Homeschooling has a way of blurring lines between school days, weekends, holidays, and breaks.

Joey finished up junior high school.  There was a big promotion ceremony for the outgoing eighth graders last week, which, like so many other things these days, was a little overblown (this is eighth grade promotion, not high school graduation; so many ceremonies of life have trickled down to the younger set that I keep wondering what they will have to look forward to), but nice.  Overall, junior high was a pretty good experience for Joey.  It’s an angsty time.  His social circle changed a few times, and his anxieties increased in some ways, which concerns me (especially given what happened with Kevin in high school).  His grades fluctuated, depending on how much of a shit he gave (and it’s hard, as a parent who no longer believes in the institution or policies of conventional school, to enforce the school’s expectations without feeling like a hypocrite), but he finished strong.  Whatever that means – it’s a piece of paper with letters and numbers on it, right?

Anyway, he’s sort of in limbo right now.  All the kids he knows from junior high are going on to high school, and they all know exactly which high school.  Joey might start at his high school of choice come August, but he might not – it all depends on whether we manage to get our house sold over the summer.  There’s a good chance that I’ll homeschool him for a year, because I don’t want to pull him and have him change schools multiple times given our pending move (we’ll rent for a while once we arrive in Oregon while we look for a place to settle permanently). And truth be told, if I had my druthers, we would delay his starting ninth grade for a year – not because he can’t hack it academically, but I think a year to grow (which is what we should have done when he started kindergarten; he has a July birthday, so we could have gone either way) maturity-wise and size-wise would benefit him.  We shall see.

Homeschooling this year definitely had its ups and downs.  I went into the school year feeling excited and confident; I had spent countless hours researching and choosing materials to use with the girls based on their learning styles and personalities, and my own goals and philosophies.  I bought everything ahead of time and was ready to rock and roll.  Of course it didn’t turn out the way I had envisioned.  By November or December, we had ditched almost everything I had so carefully researched and bought because the girls were bored with it, and I was growing increasingly frustrated.  We had meetings and took votes, because I want them to have a voice in their own education.  We settled on a much more relaxed way of schooling which required them to take a lot more initiative and responsibility for their own learning, rather than my forcing formal lessons on them.  All in all, it was a better way to go, but it’s never perfect – probably because parenting and life are never perfect anyway.  I feel like the girls all grew academically this year – except in math, which continues to be the bane, man.  The things I am most pleased about are:

  • realizing that Lilah is dyslexic and taking steps to address that.  When I figured out back in October that she’s dyslexic, so much made sense suddenly about her short history with school and her relationship with learning; it was a revelation.  I have been working with her ever since using an Orton-Gillingham-based program, and she’s made definite strides.  It’s gratifying.
  • the amazing science research projects each of the girls did.  All I asked of them was to choose any science-related topic they wanted, to research it, and present something.  Each of them did something different. Annabelle studied the solar system – she chose the books from the library and read them, she took notes and made an outline, she put together a Keynote presentation and presented it to the whole family, she made a 3D poster representation of the solar system – completely on her own.  All I did was drive her to the library and buy the supplies she asked for to make her 3D poster.  This was a HUGE achievement for this girl who is usually repelled by anything that smells like work.  Daisy studied waves – specifically, what makes waves in the ocean.  She did all the research herself, wrote a report, and did a cool demonstration involving a tub of water, marbles, and a fan.  This was less surprising coming from her, as she is by nature conscientious and responsible.  Lilah studies volcanoes.  She chose books from the library, did research on the internet, made a working model of a volcano (not from a kit), and with a little help from her sisters, made a mini documentary about volcanoes.  They spent several weeks on their projects, and came away feeling great about what they had learned, and what they had achieved.

Homeschooling Finn has been less than glowing.  In truth, I still have a bitter taste in my mouth over how things panned out for him at school.  I believe that pulling him was the best thing for him – but only because the adults in whose charge he was created such a negative environment for him, and it wasn’t supposed to be that way.  At home, we still deal with a lot of negative behaviors with him – and yes, it’s tough and it’s frustrating.  It takes so much patience and perseverance to ignore negative behaviors, offer lots of positive reinforcement, and create opportunities for him to be successful.  I have no doubt that the negative behaviors he exhibits stem from emotional immaturity, frustration at not always being understood and not being able to do all the things he wants to do, and diminished self-esteem from all the negative reinforcement he’s gotten.  The bottom line is that the more positive we are with him, the more positive he is.  Still, I didn’t accomplish much at all with him with regard to academics.  He was so resistant to anything school-related when I pulled him out of school in January that I finally just decided it was best to back way off and give him time to regroup.  I worry about him falling farther and farther behind, but then I ask myself, “Falling behind what?  Behind who?”  It’s not a race.

Scarlett, who will be four (yes, four!) in a few weeks, also benefits from homeschooling – even if she’s not officially being schooled.  She’s my clean slate – completely unsullied by traditional school.  She mixes colors of paint to make different colors, she sounds out written words, she counts and is beginning to understand the concepts of adding and subtracting – but all of it is happening organically, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.

Kevin finished his first year of college.  He’s done well.  He’s paid for it all himself at his insistence; when we’ve offered to help with his tuition and books, he turns us down.  I think he’s owning his own education, and I admire him for it.  He’s talking about an art major; I just want him to be able to make a living and be self-sufficient.  We don’t see a whole lot of him these days; he’s either at school, at work, or hanging out with friends.  He comes home to sleep, and occasionally to eat.  That is the natural order of things, I suppose.  He may not even move with us to Oregon, as he might have the opportunity to rent a room in the home of a friend he’s known since third grade. I have mixed feelings about it.  It’s hard to imagine being that far away from this child in whom I’ve invested so much love and hope and fear for almost 20 years, but perhaps it’s time for him to go forth into the world.

As for summer break, it’s shaping up to be very hectic.  Joey and Annabelle are both at rehearsals every day for the next couple of weeks gearing up for the summer (and final) production of the theater company to which they belong; Daisy is at dance nearly every day, and she too has a show coming up, and other than that, we’re getting the house ready to put on the market, which means purging, packing, cleaning, and having work done.

And that’s all she wrote.

Miscellany

Hello there.  I’ve missed you all, too.  Life is busier and I am more frazzled than ever.  Here’s a rundown on the newsworthy and the not newsworthy:

Homeschooling has become pretty much a full-time job.  In fact, Michael even said to me recently, “Wow, it’s like you have a full-time job.”  (Because, you know, I was living a cushy life of leisure before I started homeschooling.)  It’s not that our school days last all that long; in fact, we still almost always finish up by lunch time.  It’s that I spend so much time thinking about it and worrying about it and reading about it and trying to figure it out.

I’ve become a lot more relaxed about curriculum and lessons – I wouldn’t say that we’re unschooling exactly, but probably a hybrid of unschooling and relaxed schooling –  and the girls are becoming more independent and self-directed in their learning, although Lilah still needs quite a bit of help and input, and the program we’re using to address her dyslexia involves formal daily lessons and exercises.  For the most part, the girls and I talk about goals, we have a loose schedule hanging on the refrigerator which they consult, and they pretty much run with it, and I feel like my role is more and more of a guide or consultant.  And sometimes a moderator, because let’s be honest: put a handful of kids together day after day and they’re bound to get on each other’s nerves, antagonize each other, and vie for attention. But that’s just siblings, homeschooling or not.  Also, Annabelle continues to challenge my patience and stamina, as she has since toddlerhood.  She’s the clown, the goof ball, and the least cooperative in all things.  She and I butt heads a lot, which saddens me.  Sometimes I see my relationship with her fulfilling my worst fears about having a daughter – but that’s fodder for a whole other post.

I’m still trying to find a groove with Finn.  I don’t feel that unschooling can really work for him, because he is absolutely not self-directed.  He would be content to play on his iPad all day, every day, maybe for the rest of his life.  He’s curious about the world around him to a degree, but he has no innate interest in or motivation to learn to read or count or write or any of that boring stuff, nor does he have any concept of the value of those things, so educating him is a whole different ball game than educating his typically developing siblings.  I have to be very deliberate in teaching him, and I have to find ways to do it that are interesting and palatable to him, and right now I really have my work cut out for me because I think the last few months of school really tweaked him and turned him off to the whole idea of sitting down and learning.  So we’re taking it slow, and sometimes I feel a little panicked because I feel like we have so much lost ground to make up, and so much new ground to cover.  So I have to stop periodically and take a deep breath and remind myself that all we have is time, and there is nobody and nothing we need to catch up to.I’ve taken up knitting.  This isn’t news if you follow me on Instagram or Facebook.  Anyway, I’ve wanted to learn to knit for years and years (and I still want and plan to learn to crochet), and I finally bought some yarn and knitting needles and an instructional book for beginners (which didn’t help much; I find that I learn much better by watching, so YouTube videos have been awesome), and began with a scarf for myself in my favorite color:IMG_1226knits

Since then I’ve knitted a couple more scarves and hats, but I want to move on to some more complicated projects.  I love it, I really do.  It’s very Zen for me.  After the kids are in bed, I climb into bed and knit while I listen to a book on Audible.  A girlfriend (who is a longtime knitter) and I have started getting together at each other’s houses on Friday nights and knitting together over drinks.

Michael was gone for most of last week, in Portland taking the Oregon bar exam.  That’s right folks – this whole moving to Oregon thing may really happen.  It’s exciting and scary as shit.  But first things first: bar results will come out in a few weeks.

I am having a hysterectomy in less than a month.  I’m sure, being the over-sharer that I am, that I’ll write more about it as it gets closer, but for now, I’m having a lot of mixed emotions about it.  It’s all part of improving my quality of life (I pee myself constantly.  I’ve had seven babies, yo.  It takes a toll on a body), and that part I’m looking forward to, but gosh darn it, I’m pretty attached to my womb.  We’ve been through a lot together.

There are other topics flittering around in my head that I want to put words to here sometime soon, but for now, this is the nitty-gritty.

Until next time …

Footnote

As a footnote to Finn’s school saga, I contacted his former teacher (and cc’d the principal) earlier this week, inquiring about Finn’s classwork.  Nothing had ever been sent home with him – not a single writing assignment, coloring page, or art project.  Nothing.  I had been aware of it as the weeks and months wore on, but I guess somewhere in the back of my mind I kept expecting a big pile of stuff to come home with him.  But nothing ever did – not even when I officially requested his cumulative student record when I pulled him from school a couple of weeks ago.  So I sent an email earlier this week briefly explaining that nothing had ever come home with him and asking that any and all of his schoolwork be gathered together and left in the front office for me to pick up.  It took twenty-four hours to receive a response, and it was from the principal and not the teacher.  It informed me that Finn’s classwork was ready to be picked up in the front office.

I picked it up yesterday.  There was a fair amount of stuff – not nearly as much as you would expect from half a school year from a “typical” first-grader, but a fair amount.  Stuff dating back to the beginning of the school year.  A pumpkin art project obviously from October.

And this little gem, with my annotations:

School Rules

I’ll be honest: I don’t much care about the actual contents; it’s water under the bridge at this point (and most of it was worksheets that his aide had clearly had a big hand in doing).  It was the principle of it: why the fuck hadn’t his work been being sent home with him all along?  Why wasn’t he treated like a student instead of a problem?  I wanted to force their hand and get an explanation.

None, of course, was forthcoming.  I responded to the principal’s email asking her why Finn’s work had not been sent home at regular intervals all along, and asking if they ever had any intention of making sure we received his work, since it took me pointedly asking for it two weeks after he was disenrolled in order to actually get anything.  No response has been forthcoming, and I have no doubt that none will.

So, I’d just like to say to anyone who has ever hassled me for not falling all over Teacher Appreciation Week, for not buying into the whole Teachers Are Martyrs and Saints mindset: piss off.  We’ve had our share of negative, and even downright painful, teacher experiences.  Some teachers are truly wonderful – we’ve had those, too.  And some are damaging, or at least complicit in a system that is damaging.

So, I wash my hands of it.  I know that I need to find a way to let go of my anger and disappointment and move on, and do the things for my kids that school couldn’t or wouldn’t.

When Inclusion Doesn’t Work

I’ve taken this whole thing with pulling Finn from school much harder than I anticipated I would.  I spent the better part of last week in a funk, feeling very much like I was grieving.  This isn’t how it was supposed to turn out, and I am bitterly disappointed.  More than any of my other kids, I really wanted school to work for Finn because I believed that the seeds of inclusion for life in the larger community would be planted at school.  While my feelings about conventional school have changed greatly over the last few years, the fact remains that most kids spend their formative years in school, and the people Finn will be adults with are people who are children in school now.

One of the things that bothers me the most is that now that Finn is no longer in school, I think in many people’s minds he will just go down in the annals of “See?  Inclusion Doesn’t Work.  Kids With Special Needs Don’t Belong in Regular School With Regular Kids.”  Even the handful of moms whose kids went to school with Finn whom I’ve reached out to, just to let them know that Finn won’t be at school anymore – I know I’m assuming a lot here, but I have little doubt that they probably are of the mind “Well, it’s unfortunate, but not surprising.”  In other words, I think most people still don’t expect “special” kids to be in regular classrooms.

I wanted to blaze trails – or if not that, then at least make things easier for the next kid with an intellectual disability who comes along to this school in this district and who demands his or her rightful place in the general population.  But now, Finn’s case will just be more useful for the district and the school to resist inclusion.  They can continue to pat themselves on the back for having that really great program for the autistic kids – you know, “Project Success,” where they stick the kids with autism in a portable classroom out on the back forty – as far away from the hub of the school as you can get (true story, this).

Here’s what I want people to know: Finn’s inclusion didn’t work because the system failed him.  Because the adults who run this racket failed him.  The school district failed him, the school failed him, and yes, his teacher failed him.  And I will go so far as to say with conviction that in the vast majority of cases of inclusion not working, it is the failure of the system, not the child.

I am resentful that from the start, when Finn transitioned to the school district at age 3, the school district did everything possible to throw up roadblocks and make it as miserable an experience as possible.  I am angry over the thousands of dollars we spent on legal fees to get Finn’s basic legal rights honored by the school district, over the countless hours of meetings, of the volumes of letters and emails that went back and forth between us and the school district, of the fucking games the school district played including outright lying to us.  I am sick over the fact that in two and a half school years in public school, less than half of that was a positive experience.  TK sucked, mainly because the teacher didn’t know what to do with him and largely saw him as a problem.  Kindergarten was a dream, because the teacher believed in Finn, believed in his value as a human being, and was committed to everything inclusion means.  And first grade sucked, because again, Finn got a teacher who didn’t know what to do with him and largely saw him as a problem.

In one of the last communications I got from Finn’s teacher, she complained to me that “He has been playing with his long sleeve shirts a lot by pulling his arms out of his sleeves and lifting his shirt up.”  This, of course, was not the only problematic behavior he exhibited at school, but seriously, why was this even worth mentioning?  How many other first-grade boys are engaging in obnoxious or annoying behaviors like that?  And do their parents get to hear about it?  Was it hurting anyone?  Perhaps it was a distraction to the other kids.  I ask again: how many other first-graders are engaging in obnoxious or annoying or distracting behavior?  But for Finn, everything was scrutinized and deemed a problem.  This was a clear illustration of the teacher expecting Finn to accommodate everyone else rather than being afforded simple accommodations like overlooking odd behaviors that weren’t hurting anyone.

Please, spare me the sad song about how hard teachers have it.  You know what’s hard?  Being a kid with a disability in an ableist world.  Being a kid with a disability in an ableist school, in a school that would rather see you safely stowed away in a segregated classroom where you won’t bother anyone.  Being a kid with a disability in a classroom with a teacher who sees you as a problem to contend with.  That’s what’s fucking hard.

We could have stuck it out.  We could have kept fighting the good fight instead of giving up.  But the thing was that all I saw ahead of us were years and years of this shit.  Years and years of meetings and reports and paperwork and fighting with school districts and schools and teachers.  And maybe having a good year sprinkled here and there, but mostly the constant struggle of trying to get his needs met, trying to make people get it.  And meanwhile, his childhood is going by, and it’s time that will never be gotten back.

And I just couldn’t do it anymore.

And, yeah, I’m bitter.

But we pick ourselves up, and move forward.  We adjust to a new plan.

For the time being, I’m keeping homeschooling very low-key with Finn.  In truth, he still doesn’t understand that he’s not going back to school.  He still asks about it.  It was part of his routine, what he was used to.  And with the upheaval of him getting so sick and being in the hospital the first week he was out of school, we’ve barely dipped our toes into anything schoolish.  He has no IEP now, nor any ISP (Individual Service Plan, whereby homeschooled children with disabilities can still receive certain services, like speech therapy, etc., through the school district), which means we have no set educational goals, and he won’t receive any therapies.  I am completely okay with that; this was our choice.  I’ve never been big on therapies anyway, and I’m washing my hands of this school district (Joey will soon finish eighth grade and that will be that).  I filed a PSA (Private School Affidavit) with the state this school year, so I’m homeschooling the kids completely independently and autonomously – exactly how I want it, thank you very much.  We’ll figure it out.  I want to focus on the basics with Finn for now – reading, printing, counting – and we’ll take it from there.  Mostly, I want to build up his confidence and self-esteem, and undo the damage that school did to him this year.

Field trip to the arboretum

Field trip to the arboretum

Letter sent disenrolling Finn from school:

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More Adventures in Homeschooling

Last night I composed a slightly different list for each of the girls of things to find in our neighborhood.  This morning I sent them out, each with her list and her camera, with instructions to stay together and find all the things on their lists and take photos of each.  They loved it, and came home after about 45 minutes, excited to show me their photos.  Here’s Lilah’s:

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I know, not rocket science.  But it was an enjoyable alternative to the usual sit-down stuff, and it got them outside, exercising their bodies and brains a little.

All in all, homeschooling continues to have its ups and downs.  Since my “conference” with the girls awhile back where I asked for their thoughts and feelings on how we’re approaching homeschooling and making the decision to take a more child-led approach, the day-to-day structure of our homeschooling routine has become more relaxed.  I did away with lesson plans and now we go by a very general weekly schedule, which is extremely flexible and focuses more on goals than tasks.  We no longer do formal sit-down lessons; they do math mostly (but not completely) independently and at their own pace using Life of Fred; history consists of reading aloud together, mainly from A Young People’s History of the United States, but detouring off into other books and even documentaries on occasion; science and writing overlap and consist of each girl deciding on a particular topic to learn about, checking books out from the library, and spending a couple of weeks learning about that topic, taking notes, creating an outline, and then a written report.  I still use the Susan Barton reading program with Lilah, which is an ongoing, years-long program, to address her dyslexia, and all of the girls read for pleasure when they feel like it, and we read aloud together regularly right now we’re reading Island of the Blue Dolphins, one of my childhood favorites).

I could leave it at that and leave all of you with the impression that it’s heaven, and that I’ve got this homeschooling thing nailed.  I often wonder when I peruse other homeschoolers’ blogs if things are really as easy and perfect as they tend to appear.  I’ll just say it, though: it’s not that easy, and it’s far from perfect – at least in my house.

Despite having made so many changes to my approach and trying very hard to adopt a new philosophy, I still struggle.  I’m still often met with resistance, and I still yell at my kids in frustration. After a lot of contemplation, I think I’ve come to a realization, and that is that I think homeschooling/unschooling is in some ways much, much easier for folks who set out on that path from the beginning.  I think it’s very difficult to go from conventional schooling and all of the attitudes and practicalities that entails, to homeschooling.  In a nutshell, I feel like conventional school kind of ruined learning for my kids by making it mostly a tiring, unpleasant chore, and set me up to have certain beliefs and expectations that I’m really, really struggling to shake.  This means that no matter how palatable I try to make this whole endeavor to my girls, they still tend to have negative feelings and associations about learning, and this sets up resistance, which causes me a lot of aggravation.

I still worry all the time that I’m not doing enough, that they’re not learning enough.  That’s where school ruined me.  From a rational standpoint, I know that they will almost certainly learn enough to have productive, meaningful lives, but I’m always thinking about the what-ifs.  I think my biggest fear is that something will happen to me or to Michael, and the girls will be forced to go back to school, and they’ll be lost.

I wish our homeschooling endeavor were more inspired.  I wish we did more fun, creative activities, I wish we ventured out more and went more places.  But the reality is that inspiration is hard to come by for whatever reason, and I am still bound by Joey’s and Finn’s school schedules, which necessarily keeps me and the girls close to home (really, mostly at home).

I miss having more time to myself.  I love my kids to the ends of the earth, but it is not always easy to be with them all day, every day.  I rarely get a break anymore, and so I stay up way too late at night, because the hours after they go to bed are really the only hours during which I can chill out and read or knit or whatever.  And then I’m tired because I stay up too late (I still have to get up early to get Finn and Joey to school).  It’s a balancing act that I have not mastered.

Anyway, I didn’t mean for this to turn into a complainy piece.  I am still glad that I made the decision to homeschool, am grateful that I’m even in a position to homeschool.  I love the freedom and flexibility, and I appreciate the ways in which is has alleviated my girls’ stress levels and given them back time to just be kids – even if it’s exchanged certain stresses for others for me.

 

In Pursuit of Educational Utopia

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I’m still trying to figure out the best approach to homeschooling for our family.  I’ve only begun to realize that for most homeschooling families it’s an ever-evolving undertaking.  Very few, if any, jump into homeschooling and immediately figure out a path that works well for them and suits their particular goals, philosophies, and lifestyle for the long-term.  There are always tweaks and adjustments to be made, new approaches to try.  It can be unsettling to feel like you never quite have it all figured out, that you never get to feel 100% certain that the way you’re doing it is the best way to do it, but that really is the beauty of homeschooling: the flexibility to make changes.

So, I’ve been feeling more and more unsettled lately about how I’m approaching homeschooling.  The girls are learning the stuff I’m making them learn, but that’s just the thing: there is still a sense of coercion which we all feel and dislike.  Probably the girls’ favorite subject right now is history, because it’s very relaxed.  We sit in the living room and read from A Young People’s History of the United States: Columbus to the War on Terror (I am determined not to peddle a sanitized or white washed version of history to my kids) – which has led us on detours to a separate book about slavery, and now a book about the Mayflower and its passengers.  Sometimes the girls take turns reading, but mostly I read, and while I’m reading, they draw or doodle or play with clay or something.  So it’s very laid back.  And we have these great discussions about what it must have been like way back when, and how the past impacts today’s social issues, and sometimes something we read will prompt us to look something up in the World Atlas.  It’s probably my favorite subject, too, not only because it’s interesting and engaging, but because the girls all participate willingly and seem to genuinely enjoy it.

I want more of that, and I think the girls do, too.

Which is why I’m thinking more and more about unschooling.

Unless you’re actually familiar with unschooling (which I’m only starting to be), most of what you think about it is probably wrong.  I’ve had the same skepticism that most people have about it.  I think the “un” in “unschooling” can be misleading in that it sounds like “not educating.”  But that’s not what it is.  Unschooling is a sort of radical departure from conventional schooling and teaching.  It’s also known as “child-led learning,” and it means putting the kids in the driver’s seat of their own education.  So it’s not about textbooks and worksheets and prescribed reading and projects.  It’s not about presenting material in a sequential manner and expecting kids to learn in a sequential manner.  It’s not about scoring or grading or ranking or comparing.  It means making available to kids plenty of opportunities to explore things and subjects that interest them, and trusting that, if allowed to pursue what is relevant and meaningful to them, they will learn what they need to learn along the way in order to live a meaningful, self-directed and self-sufficient life.

It appeals to me because it’s very much in line with my belief for Finn in “life as therapy.”  Way back when he was two years old, after much agonizing, we ditched all the usual therapies that parents of kids with Ds are expected to buy into because it seemed largely pointless, intrusive, in some ways counterproductive (in that it involved constantly assessing, evaluating, and comparing him, with an eye towards improving him), and yes, even coercive.  I fully believe that just about everything Finn has learned has come from living life and from being included (to the extent he has been included) – not from therapy.

So, unschooling, in a nutshell, is “life as school.”

Still, it’s a HUGE leap of faith.  And it’s not one that I’m sure I can make all at once, with both feet.

The other day I sat all three girls down around the dining room table for a little conference.  I wanted to hear from each of them how they’re feeling about homeschooling: what they like about it, what they don’t like, any concerns or worries they might have, and what changes they’d like to make to how we do things.  They all cited “less stress,” “less pressure to keep up,” “being able to work at our own pace,” “no homework,” and “more free time” as things they like about homeschooling.  They all said they dislike math (this isn’t news; math is the subject that elicits the most whining, nagging, and tears).  They all want “more fun stuff” and “more field trips.”

After we talked for a while, I asked them each to come up with their ideal weekly schedule, and I encouraged them to collaborate.  Then we sat down again and talked about what they had come up with, and agreed on a new weekly schedule that we’ll try out.  We agreed to sit down again in a couple of weeks and talk about how it’s going.

We agreed to do more history, and more reading literature together.  We’re ditching the writing/grammar program I’ve been using with the twins because they just aren’t engaging with it.  They rush through the assignments just to get them out of the way, not because they particularly care about them.  The twins have agreed to keep writing on their own – anything: essays, short stories, letters, journal entries – and to sit down with me once in a while and talk about writing.  (I’m going to keep doing the Barton system with Lilah, because I feel like she needs the tools in order for her dyslexia to not continue to be a barrier for her.)  We’re also ditching the science program we’ve been using, as it’s textbook based, and like the writing, the girls aren’t particularly engaged with the prescribed material presented.  All three of them would rather study animals and so forth on their own.  They all take an art class across town once a week, which we’ll continue for now, but I’m thinking probably not for the long-term, as it’s expensive, and I suspect the girls are going to get bored with it.

Math, though.  I’m really struggling with what to do about math (and from what I understand, it’s the subject that a lot of unschoolers stress over).  For now we’ve agreed to cut it down to three times a week instead of five, but they still dislike it, and it still feels like I’m the taskmaster, cajoling them to do lessons they resent and don’t care about.  Just this morning, as Lilah cried over yet another worksheet, I stood there thinking, “What is she really even getting out of this?”  I’m having a very, very hard time letting go of the conditioning I’ve received all my life, though, that math (formally taught in a sequential manner, with lots of practice drills) is necessary, and they need to do it for their own good.

I don’t know where we will ultimately land in our homeschooling journey.  Although I am cozying up to the idea of unschooling more and more, I think it’s going to take some time for me to become completely comfortable with it.  In the meantime, baby steps.  I’m trying to let go of the conventions I’ve had hammered into me all my life, and let the girls have more say in their own education.

I have another post brewing about democratic education; stay tuned.

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Edited to add this link for anyone who might be interested.  Looks like a great resource, and offers a nice explanation of homeschooling: unschool

 

Education and Life

My views about education continue to evolve.  The more I read – and experience through my kids – the more repelled I become by conventional school.  I seriously believe that it’s causing great harm to kids, and in turn, to society.  Our narrow views of what success looks like, and how that feeds into how we educate our kids – it’s very disheartening.  Although I have only two kids enrolled in conventional public school at this point, it’s getting harder and harder to feel good about sending them.  I don’t think that the system serves kids.  I think it chews them up and spits them out.  Yes, some kids thrive, but I think those that do thrive do so despite the stifling, ableist, inhumane system that school is, not because the education system is conducive to thriving.

Two conversations yesterday struck me:

First –

Yesterday on the drive home from school, Joey said to me, “So, I had a science test today, and I’m pretty sure I aced it.  I should be getting a really good grade in that class.”

What struck me about his remark was that there was no mention of what he’s actually learned or been exposed to in that class, or whether he’s enjoyed it or found it interesting or not.  It’s all about the grade.  And that’s not my doing, as I don’t put a lot of emphasis on grades.

For the record, Michael and I are not in complete agreement as to how much emphasis should be put on the kids’ grades.  I only want them to do their own personal best in all of their endeavors, in school and outside of school.  I think grades, to a great extent, are arbitrary, and certainly don’t tell much about how well a kid understands or cares about the content (they might just be good test-takers, or poor test-takers), and as Joey is proving, grades often serve as nothing more than an abstract gold star to earn, after which the content can be, and usually is, forgotten.  Michael believes that having an expectation for kids to get good grades gives them something concrete to shoot for.

Anyway, Joey’s comment about his science test is far from unusual.  When he talks about his classes at school, it’s usually in those terms.  It’s rarely a discussion about what he’s actually learning, how engaged he is with what he’s learning, whether any interesting discussions took place in class, what questions the content might have sparked for him, how what he’s learning might relate to life outside of school – none of that.  It’s almost always about how well he’s doing (or not) – about the grade.

It just really, really saddens me.  This is what passes for educating our kids?  How can anyone feel good about this?

Second –

Late last night when Kevin got home from work, I was in bed reading, and he came in to chat with me for a few minutes before going to bed (I am so grateful that he still wants to chat with his mom!).  He said, “So, I think I’ve decided where I want to go with school and everything.”

“Yeah?” I asked, happy to hear that he’s thinking about it and figuring out what he wants to do.

“Yeah.  I think I want to take cosmetology, and eventually transfer to an art school and specialize in makeup.  You know, for special effects and stuff, like for movies.”

Okay, let me just say that, no, a career in cosmetology or makeup is definitely not anything I ever imagined my son being interested in or pursuing.  Who dreams of their son someday growing up and becoming a makeup artist?  I totally realize how, in moments like this, my own gender biases, and my own narrow views of what “success” is supposed to look like stand out in glaring relief.  I like to believe that I am an open-minded, liberal, accepting person – but shit like this knocks me down a peg or two, that’s for sure.

Anyway.  Kevin has been interested in art for years.  As an adolescent, he went through a period of a few years where he painstakingly created these pretty elaborate stop action movies using clay, Legos, etc.  For a while he was interested in animation, and then he got more interested in drawing and painting.  What he said last night was that most art forms are going (or have gone) digital, and he’s not interested in digital arts, and makeup – specifically for movie-making – is one of the few art forms left that is still manual and hands-on.

What struck me about all of this (aside from my own hangups which are clearly still a work in progress) was this thought: “How sad.”  And what I mean by that is how sad that he had to go through the misery of conventional school – mainly high school, which was a very, very dark and difficult time for him.  I mean, if he does indeed pursue a career in art, how much of his conventional schooling will turn out to have been unnecessary?  I know, I know – you’re probably thinking, “Well, but don’t we owe it to kids to expose them to all of what school forces on kids has to offer just in case they need it someday?”  Just in case.  It’s the go-to argument when discussions about what’s really necessary and/or appropriate in education arise.  Just in case.

I just can’t buy it anymore.  I used to believe it, too.  You have to make kids learn chemistry and trigonometry just in case they ever need it.  To not make them learn those things would be to cheat them.

Bah.

Sometimes I wonder how much happier Kevin’s teen years would have been if I had sought some sort of alternative schooling for him – whether a different sort of school, or homeschooling.  I wonder how much more content he might have been if he had just been allowed and encouraged to really pursue the things that interested him, in an environment that empowered him and nurtured him emotionally, instead of one that expected him to conform to certain standards and to perform a certain way, and achieve certain things – all of which did not take him into consideration as a unique individual.  Sometimes I wonder.

All of this plays into my current struggle with finding the right approach to homeschooling.  I’ll get to that hopefully tomorrow.

 

Rethinking Schooling (… again)

There’s this documentary called Class Dismissed.  I heard about it probably a year ago, and got my hands on a DVD when they were made available a couple of months ago.  I finally got around to watching it yesterday, and … man.  Even though I’ve been homeschooling for a year now, there is still so much I don’t know – or, rather, so much I still have to learn.  I mean, this isn’t shocking – it’s not like I’ve been going along feeling like I have it all figured out.  I do feel that homeschooling has enabled Lilah, Daisy, and Annabelle to learn in a better environment than what school provided, I do feel that in some important ways it’s alleviated a lot of stress for them, and that it’s given them more freedom to be kids.  But there are still struggles, and I am often filled with doubt about how I’m going about the whole thing, and in some ways it’s increased my stress level because I am putting so much pressure on myself to make it work, to make sure they learn all the things they’re supposed to learn, when they’re supposed to learn them.

One of the most eye-opening things presented in Class Dismissed is that, well, pretty much everything that we collectively believe about schooling – that is, how and when kids should learn what – is stuff that we believe only because it’s what we’ve been fed for the last hundred years or so.  Compulsory school didn’t exist before then, and the industrial/factory model of schooling (which is the model of public school – the assembly line model, the grouping-kids-by-age-and-expecting-them-to-learn-a-prescribed-set-of-skills-and-knowledge-and-then-move-up-to-the-next-grade-based-on-age-and-not-ability-or-interest-model) came into existence to fill a specific need: to create workers in an industrial age, when workers would be expected to spend their adult lives being told what to do and following directions.  That model is sorely outdated, and it’s not serving kids well anymore.  It’s cultivating stressed-out, burned-out, competitive but not necessarily interested, creative or self-directed kids.  I can’t, of course, speak for other people’s kids, but I’ve watched my gaggle of kids lose interest in learning at school.  I’ve watched them become resentful, being made to do assignments – under threat of punishment – just because some distant, anonymous authority decided that’s what they must do.  What happened to learning for the joy of it?  What happened to fostering curiosity?  We don’t care about that.  We care about results.  We care about numbers, percentages, scores, rankings, performance.  We care about conformity, about compliance and obedience.  Schools are very good about having an arsenal of consequences at their disposal for kids who don’t fit into neat little boxes – and superficial rewards for those who do.

It’s just mind-numbing.  And so disheartening.  And it’s not getting any better – it’s only getting worse.  Classrooms are getting bigger and bigger, curriculum and expectations more and more rigid, teachers more hobbled by bureaucracy, and funds more scarce.

And we keep sending our kids to these institutions, because we believe it’s what’s best, because we can’t imagine doing anything else.

Well, some of us do do something else.  Some of us send our kids to private schools (which are mostly the same as public schools as far as teaching methods and expectations go).  Some of us send our kids to alternative schools.  Some of us homeschool.  And we’re often seen as the parents who are playing roulette with our kids’ educations and futures.

But I really don’t care what anyone else thinks about what I’m doing.  That’s not the tangent I meant to go off on here.  What I really care about is what I think about what I’m doing, and how it’s serving my kids.  And there is my ongoing dilemma, and which this documentary has busted wide open for me.

Stripped down, I think what I’m doing is recreating school at home.  And while I don’t think this is necessarily terrible or wrong, more and more I’m questioning if this is really what will serve my kids and me and our family best.  It’s so, so hard to let go of an ideology that’s been so long-held – that my kids need to learn certain things at certain times in their lives, generally dictated by age.  It’s true that they don’t have homework, and their school days are relatively short because homeschooling by its very nature eliminates most of the filler.  It’s true that rather than doing grade-specific work, I’m trying to meet them where they’re at and move from there.  It’s true that we are learning about things in ways that just aren’t available at school.  It’s true that since we ditched the charter school that was overseeing us last year, we have a ton more freedom to do things any way that works for us, and virtually no hoops to jump through.

But I still worry all the time: are we doing enough?  Too much?  Are we doing the right stuff?  There are still often tears and cajoling over math (all three of the girls’ least favorite subject).  I think the girls still feel like they’re doing a lot of this stuff only because they’re being told they have to, and not because they are especially interested or inspired.

So I’ve really begun to wonder: what would it look like if I let them take the reins?  What if they could direct their own learning path – or at least more of it than they do now?  What would that look like?  Why don’t I trust them to want to learn unless forced to?  And do I actually have the ability to relax and to give up some control and let things unfold as they may?  What’s the worst that could happen?  What’s the best that could come of it?

I’m thinking of trying an experiment for a week or two.  Let them be in charge of their learning, and see what happens.

But this whole thing raises other questions, too.  What about Finn, and even Joey?  Everything I understand about the limitations of conventional public school finally made me pull three of my “typical” kids out in an effort to create something better for them, but I’m still sending Finn into a system that I no longer have faith in.  We got the inclusive placement for him, but that’s not even half the battle.  For inclusion to truly work, it takes so much more than a placement in general ed.  It takes belief in inclusion and ongoing effort by everyone involved.  It takes the right attitude and perceptions about disability and kids and belonging by all of the adults involved.  It takes enthusiastic (and not grudging) support and accommodations.  It takes resources.  If any of those things are missing – and most of the time, several of those things are missing – then inclusion is not inclusion at all, but only a struggle.  And who eats it in the end?  The kid.

Finn’s first-grade year so far has been very much a struggle.  It’s been a huge letdown from kindergarten last year where he thrived.  He’s apparently having a lot of behavior issues, and that seems to be the focus of his school days.  It’s been very stressful and disheartening.  And I’m questioning more and more what the point is of putting him into an environment day after day that just isn’t set up to embrace non-conforming kids.

And even Joey.  He does fine in school, but he only enjoys it for the social part.  He goes to school to be with his friends.  He stopped loving school for the sake of learning probably back in fifth grade.  He doesn’t particularly enjoy his classes or see the point of most of the work he’s made to do.  Unenthusiastic and uninspired.

So, I don’t know.  I feel like some big changes need to be made for everyone.  Maybe a big move might be the perfect impetus to make a major shift in the way we choose to educate our kids.

Anyway, seriously, if you can get your hands on Class Dismissed, do.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

 

 

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