A Letter from the Counselor

IMG_1383I have a high school senior, and it is November — college application time.  It’s that season for seniors everywhere, an intense push to whittle down lists of schools you know only a bit about while choosing an area of study that may seem completely divorced from the world of work that lays ahead. For most student, it’s an exciting, frightening, and excruciatingly painful process, depending on the moment.

Parents share the fright, excitement, and pain. We marvel that this being, once entirely dependent, is stepping closer to adulthood. We worry about finances (ours) and readiness (theirs). This storm of emotions is tinged with the knowledge that change is hard even when completely welcome.  Sometimes we’re scared, but we’re not supposed to show it.

Homeschooling parents face an additional challenge during college application season. We’ve been principal, counselor, and teacher as well as parent, and thus we not only write the checks but also the transcripts and letters to admissions offices. We answer questions that force us to put the parental hat aside and look dispassionately yet positively at the child who we rocked through colic and whose hands we held while he took his first steps. It’s mental gymnastics with no net and no spotter.

I’d managed to avoid these worries until a few weeks back when my homeschooled senior finished his part of one of five college applications. It was fairly easy for him, with only short answers about interests and activities requiring thought. He’d worried about this process, so he started on a simple on. After a bit of work and some checking and rechecking, he electronically submitted it. Done. Whew.

And then the email came. The one requesting his transcript (so close to done, but needing a few final touches) and a letter from his counselor. That’s me.

I knew this was coming. A few years back, I’d watched a friend work through the counselor sections on college applications, andI recall her concerns, trying to find the right tone to discuss her daughter, an accomplished young woman with plenty of options. She had to explain her homeschooling philosophy as well, something most homeschooling parents have some sense of but often don’t put into words, at least not for people making decisions that affect our child’s future. She had to explain her daughter without gushing but without pointing out the flaws either. It’s hard work for a parent.

So a few weeks back, after much stalling, I donned the correct hat and sat down to write the letter from the counselor, a letter I can likely use for any school that asks for it, but that hardly made it less daunting. I wrote, deleted, and rewrote, not quite finishing but stopping because, like many pieces of writing needing revision, I needed the distance time provides to view it again. A week later, I revisited the letter. It wasn’t as bad as I feared, and it needed only a handful of revisions to obtain the dispassionately positive account that the job required. I ended up pleased with the letter and slipped it into the mail with his transcript.

But something else happened in that letter writing process, something beyond profiling my son for a college option. Before starting the letter, I’d spent weeks staring at minutiae on his transcript, tweaking the font and color scheme (tiny with blue highlight for headings), agonizing over whether to weight his grades or not (yes, but only the college courses and list both unweighted and weighted), and wondering what makes a transcript ‘official’ (the word ‘official’ on it — really). I spent nights wondering if more time on literature would have been worth the agony and if his electronics class was a science or a computer studies course. I’d started to see him only as numbers and lists of classes. But this letter. This letter from the mother who, for a decade had worn the hats of mother, counselor, teacher, and principal. This letter from a mother standing so close to her subject that it appeared as a Pointillism-style painting by Seurat viewed just inches from the canvas. All dots, seemingly random and without connection to one another. This letter pushed me back.

This letter pushed be back from those dots and showed me a full picture of my son. I saw his passion for computers, both their hardware and software. I saw the hours of effort put into helping others, friends, family, and acquaintances who had relied on him for help with technology they didn’t understand. I saw the boy becoming a man who found a way through each technical problem that came his way, the one who thirsted for more knowledge and read more online about his scientific and technical interests than I often likely knew. I saw a competent young man who had so much to give to others, one for whom numbers and lists of classes told only fraction of his story. I saw struggles and victory, hard earned and modestly worn. Between the lines, I recalled defeats, painful but just as important in formation as the successes. I saw a student ready for the next step with plenty to offer a college or workplace because of the person he is, something no transcript can possibly convey.

His college application process continues to rumble on. He’s not enjoying it, and I’m not either. It’s still exciting, frustrating, and somewhat painful, although a bit less than it was. In time, we’ll see who choses him and, more importantly, whom he chooses. While we’re waiting, I’ll keep looking at my son at a bit more of a distance, appreciating him with the passionate love that I had while holding those tiny, soft hands when he learned to walk, letting go, bit by bit, as he was ready. It’s time.

 

Evolution (but not Religion) in the Biology Classroom

“Now that I’m homeschooling, I’ll be teaching the boys creationism, of course.”

The chuckle I’d expected from my father didn’t come. He paused, unsure what to say. My decision to homeschool my older had somewhat unnerved him, as it wasn’t the typical path, but he was never one to meddle in my life. I’d rarely even seen him pause like that, processing thoughts that were likely previously thought unthinkable. Creationism? How could that be?

“I’m kidding, Dad,” I reassured him, a bit surprised he’d even thought it was possible.  He exhaled but still looked a bit shaken. He was then a Biology professor at a state university and is still today a liberal Presbyterian. He is committed to science while believing in God, and he finds no conflict between science and his religion. I was raised with both, understanding evolution and believing in God, never seeing conflict between them. And while I left my belief behind about a decade ago, it wasn’t because of science.

What does it mean to understand biology through the lens of science? It means to understand that from the simplest species to the most complicated, natural selection drives the changes to that species. Genes copy with errors, and errors can wreak havoc with life or increase the chance of an individual surviving to reproduce. And that’s what life (in the biological sense) is all about — making more of a species. From antibiotic resistance in bacteria to the form and function of the mammalian eye to the modern human today, evolution is the driver. It’s wily driver, without direction or purpose. Every slip of DNA’s copying mechanism is random, with ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ relative to where the alteration occurred, what (if any) effect it has on the organism, and even the environment in which that organism lives.IMG_0986

To teach biology without this understanding is to miss much of what biology is. To limit evolution to that bacteria’s antibiotic resistance or the finch’s beak is to mangle the very mechanism of change in the living world. It’s akin to teaching composition without discussing grammar. Evolution is how change happens, and biology can only be fully understood by appreciating that overarching truth in science.

So a few weeks back, when I tucked into evolutionary biologist’s David Barash’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times, God, Darwin, and My College Biology Class, I found myself nodding along. Barash begins his undergraduate animal behavior class with what he calls “The Talk.” This lecture affirms that his class with look at all of biology through the lens of evolution, a statement I make on my biology syllabus for the classes I’ve taught my sons and their friends and that other families have used as well. I admittedly have an advantage, as my students are known to me and from families where creationism isn’t part of the curriculum. And so evolution simply permeates the class, with religion rarely brought up. It is, after all biology class.

Barash’s classes are more diverse than my tiny home classroom, and I imagine my father’s were similarly diverse. College biology may be the first place conservative Christians rooted in creationism or, its euphemism, Young Earth creationism, may first experience biology through that lens of evolution in a way that affirms the process rather than denies its validity. That could easily put a student on guard, worried about veracity of the rest of the course or thinking about at least part of his or her faith. I’d agree is seems wise to warn — or at least inform — the class of the lens in place. That should be sufficient.

IMG_0538I can’t recall any reference to religion in any of my biology courses in either my Catholic high school or Catholic university. Religion wasn’t mentioned, and no one every asked, as far as I recall, if it should or shouldn’t be discussed in the science classroom.  Barash takes the offensive, as he starts with a talk about religion and science. He doesn’t stop at stating that evolution is the underpinning of biology, and that all will be discussed through that lens. He does not hold, as I do (and as does Stephen Gould) that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” meaning they have separate domains and are, therefore, compatible understandings in a single human being. Instead, Barash tells his students that religion and science do overlap in domain, and that accepting evolution demands deconstruction of any belief in “an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.”

After discussion of the complexity created by natural selection and the illusion of humans as central in the living world, Barash settles into theodicy, an issue far afield of the evolution he sets out to explain. Problems with theodicy (the attempt to reconcile suffering in the world occurring in the presence of an omnipotent, caring deity) contribute to many a person of faith’s loss of that faith. Veering from science, Barash steps broadly into religion, confronting students with the news that if they buy evolution, their faith will likely fall, provided they’re thinking deeply enough:

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator. (Barash)

As an agnostic who sees science through the lens of evolution and the universe as a mystery we ever so slowly unwrap, origin somewhat understood, but only with the most tenacious grasp, I find myself irritated with Barash. Like other militant atheists (and I’m assuming he is an atheist), he forces a narrow lens on what God must be to the believer: God, it seems, must be creator of all, simple and complex, pulling each string and guiding each change. God must create humans as separate, with some of God’s supernaturalness in humans but not other creatures. God must be absent given suffering in the world.DSCN0653

About a decade ago, I left my faith behind. But I didn’t lose it in the science classroom, and I didn’t lose it because I understood that the complexity of life is due to evolution, the roll of the genetic dice paired with environmental pressures. I didn’t lose faith because I understood the long arc of evolution that brought humans into being. I lost it in part to the theodicy question and in part to long thought about what made sense to me. Science wasn’t part of my musing.

My father, a biologist who understands and teaches science through the lens of evolution, a man of faith who is dedicated to helping others of faith, understands that science and faith need not be in conflict. He hasn’t lost his belief, despite decades of science study as a researcher, professor, and interested human being. He, like Barash and I, understand the complexity produced by evolution’s often slow hand, and he is unbothered by the lack of supernatural gene in humans. And the theodicy question? He’s obviously found a way through that one, all while appreciating the science of evolution. And at what cost to his science classes? None.

Barash’s mistakes, in my opinion, are two-fold. First, his view of what God is to a believer is myopic and simplistic. Views of God, gods, goddesses, and divine forces in the universe are as diverse as there are people who believe. Second, his approach is arrogant and presumptive. To tell people who believe just how their faith will be undone is an act of assumed superiority and completely without regard to the personal nature of an individual’s faith. Will some conservative believers, steeped in the absoluteness of a seven-day creation myth struggle as they take biology in a college classroom where evolution is the common currency? Probably. But many believers of all flavors won’t struggle one bit, content with their separation of science and religion.

DragonflyBarash wants to warn his students that, should they retain their faith, they will do so only with “some challenging mental gymnastic routines.” How a nonbeliever can begin to step into the mind of a believer and predict whether the wonders of evolution will deepen or destroy the faith of another is beyond me. Yes, science can challenge faith, especially a conservative faith resting on a supreme being pulling the strings and putting humans above all else. But faith, in many forms, can sit comfortably with the scientist, causing no sacrifice to the scientist’s understanding of the universe and the living things inhabiting it. Barash’s talk forwards his own atheist agenda, and that, in the classroom, is going too far.

I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but when at the front of the classroom, I believe you have a responsibility that includes knowing your boundaries. If you’re a biology teacher, teach science. Unabashedly teach evolution and say that you’ll do so. Talk about complexity. Ignore creationism, as it’s not science. And ignore God, whether you believe or not, as faith isn’t part of science. Encourage students struggling with the concepts to discuss their struggle with classmates, their religious leader, their God, or anyone who will listen and let them sort through. But stay out of the wonderings and wanderings of their faith.

I teach biology through the lens of evolution. I’m an agnostic. My father, on a far larger scale, did the same for decades. He’s a Presbyterian. It works.

 

Cross-posted on Finding My Ground, my personal and religious blogging home.

October 16: Opposing viewpoints are welcome as long as they are on point and respectfully presented. I’m glad to have a conversation that is respectful. All comments will be held for moderation to assure conversation remains civil. 

 

Beyond Curriculum: Teaching Science and Scientific Thought (Essential Skills Series)

See Essential Skills for a Modern World for an overview of this series on science and critical thinking skills.  I discuss science and scientific thinking in the post Follow the Ant and curriculum in Curriculum for Teaching Science and Scientific Thinking. Critical thinking is up next. Stay tuned.IMG_1584

“Mom! Look at this!”

I leave my vegetable garden to join my younger son in his crouch over the remains of a parsley plant. Just days ago, we’d picked a few healthy sprigs for a soup, but today, I can only find a few intact leaves. What happened?

“Look, mom!” My son points at a small caterpillar stretched across a stem, inching toward the remains of a leaf. We watched, silently, focused on our visitor/thief. It took a moment before I saw the rest of them, six or ten similar caterpillars marching and munching. At only a few centimeters long, skinny with yellow, black and white, they were attractive. Fascination quickly replaced annoyance with our garden guest as we explored the nearby plants, inspecting them for visitors and damage. Only the parsley was eaten, with the flower to its right and the tree to the left untouched and uninhabited.

After a long observation, we went inside to research what we’d seen. Using an insect field guide, we identified the caterpillar as the larval stage of a swallowtail butterfly, common to our area. We returned the next day to check on our friends, but they’d stripped the plant and, apparently, moved on. The parsley plant rebounded, but was never touched again that season. We never finding a pupae nor an adult swallowtail. We’d done science, though, and that was satisfying.IMG_1277

My children’s science education started early, although it was one of the last subjects I taught formally. Before my older son was three, I named the plants for him. Hydrangea. Tulip. Black-eyed Susan. Boxwood. Dandelion. I’d named other parts of his world: His trains from Thomas the Tank Engine. Animals at the zoo. Colors. Letters. Numbers. Foods. Adding the flora of our yard just made sense. Is naming science? Certainly. Naming fills the sciences. Our planets, stars, and galaxies have names, as do elements and compounds. Taxonomy alone would make for a meager science education, but it’s a lovely place to start.

Naming gives a common language for what happens next in a child’s science education: Questions. While “What’s that?” is the refrain of the toddler, “Why?” is the mantra of the preschooler. Sometimes, we don’t know. It’s okay to say that. We’d be wise to model their question-asking by wondering aloud back to them. Why does the bee sting? Why does the ice melt? Why do the stars twinkle? Why don’t the planets? We can ask without answering, allowing time for wonder.IMG_1346

Scientists, the ones in labs and in the field, after all, don’t have all the answers. They have questions that are borne from observations paired with wondering, and they look for answers, but answers, the hard and firm kind, are often elusive, and life-long scientists are used to having more questions than answers.

Teaching our children and ourselves science and scientific thought required that we do three things:

  1. Observe the world, both natural and technological, naming what can be named.
  2. Name what you see. If you can’t name it, see if you can get close.
  3. Ask questions about what we see, wondering how that world works.
  4. Through research, experimentation, and more observation, pursue answers to those questions.

IMG_1448It doesn’t require the right curriculum (or any at all) or an advanced degree in science or math. It simply requires curiosity and the willingness to think about what is, wondering why and searching for answers.

Observation is simply a matter of practice. Take time to follow the ant. Watch the clouds move across the sky. Take off the back of your computer and look around. Turn your houseplants and watch their leaves turn back to the light. Take a magnifying glass to the mold on your bread. Watch yeast come to life when you go to bake new bread.

Observation can go beyond our homes and haunts. Nature and science videos — well done ones from reputable folks (most NOVA, Cosmos, David Attenborough, etc.) offer fine views of what we can’t see locally. The internet offers us even more, although use caution when taking your science observation online. Not all you may see is real, and using good critical thinking skills to sort through sites is a must (more on those skills in the next post).  NASA.gov takes us to the stars and beyond.  The Periodic Videos bring us chemical reactions we should not try at home. BBC Nature provides images of the very big, very small, and very hidden.  While nothing beats observing the natural world unfold in real life, these sites and more can bring the big, small, and hidden into view.

IMG_1557Name what you see. Our best research tools at home are a set of field guides. While we buy some new, we’ve picked up most at used bookstores over the years. (Don’t be put off by old editions. A cardinal from the 1960s is still a cardinal, although given climate change, you may want a more current source for its geographic range.) Find guides for flowers, birds, trees, garden plants, clouds, and rocks and more. Yes, you could use guides designed for cell phones, but, for me, it’s easier to page through pictures in a pocket-sized field guide, looking for a match than to peer in bright sunlight and tiny images on my phone. Either way, look it up. Name what you’re seeing.

Ask questions. Specifically, teach your child to ask questions by asking them yourself. When first guiding a young child in this process, ask questions you know the answer to along with ones you don’t. It’s good for kids to hear an adult say “I don’t know,” followed by “What do you think?” That’s science.  Use naming language in your questions as much as possible. “What’s that male mallard duck doing when he sticks his head under the water?”  “How does that penicillin treat your strep throat?” Use the language of science — specific names paired with specific events  — as you form your questions.IMG_1313

Pursue answers.  Look up what you don’t know. Some families keep a notebook handy on walks for questions to look up later. We’re not one of those families. (I figure what we remember to pursue is what caught our attention the most.) Again, be careful of the sites you trust when taking science online.

Then take the next step. Do the experiment. Does the yeast bubble (respiration — releasing carbon dioxide) at a different rate if the water is cold than if it is warm? What does hot water do? If you add a bit of sugar, does that change the process? Plenty of experimentation can be done at home without fancy equipment. Resist buying books of experiments. While these guided demonstrations can lead to better understanding of a principle, they rarely have the child ask the question. Instead, the question is provided along with the answer.

You can use those books of experiments to spur questions, however. Use the lab as a demonstration punctuated with questions like “What do you think will happen if…” and “What do you think is happening?” Or turn a lab into a demonstration and let the questioning begin. Consider the experiment where the hard-boiled egg pulls into a bottle when the flame at the bottom of the bottle burns out. It’s a study of temperature and air pressure. Rather than doing what most experiments do — explanation first with lab later — invert the order. Do the experiment. Then ask questions. For each proposed answer, think about ways to test the answers. Do what’s practical and safe. (And discuss the impractical and unsafe along the way.)

Above all, have fun. Observe the world with curiosity and thought. Name what you can. Ask questions. Search for answers. Cultivate your own and your child’s scientific thinking every day.

Curriculum for Teaching Science and Scientific Thinking (Essential Skills Series)

See Essential Skills for a Modern World for an overview of this series on science and critical thinking skills.  I discuss science and scientific thinking in the post Follow the Ant. The recommendations below are based on my experience educating my sons and myself over the last decade. In my next post, I’ll explore other resources for fostering scientific thinking and increasing scientific understanding. 

IMG_1556

Okay, you’ve followed the ant. Well, perhaps you’ve considered sending your kids out to follow the ant, asking them to return and fill you in, but hopefully you’re thinking about your children’s science education in more practical terms. Here’s a bit of assistance.

Choosing curriculum

Formal curriculum isn’t the most essential part of a child’s or adult’s science education , but I do know it’s what comes to mind when we think about teaching science. For the youngest students, I’d not bother with formal curriculum. Explore the world together. Follow your child’s interests or introduce him to yours. Go to the library and explore the science sections for children and adults. Watch science shows for kids and for adults, but mostly DO science by interacting with the natural world.

When you start selecting formal curriculum, be choosy. Insist on a curriculum that puts science at the center and avoids other agendas. (The scientific process is quite different from theological thinking. Mixing them makes for a poor education in both. Don’t do it.) Look for curriculum that requires the student to ask questions and to think about possibilities. Many texts intended for schools simply don’t do much of that, nor do many of the big-name publishers for homeschoolers. Inquiry science is the formal name for science that puts questions and thought before answers, and, frankly, it’s hard to find. Worry less about tests, as far too many ask for facts rather than concepts applied to new situations, and scientific thinking is a process, not a series of facts. Yes, facts are important, but divorced from doing science, they don’t create scientific thinkers. Look for questions higher up Bloom’s taxonomy, where questions require application of facts, analysis, evaluation, and creation.

Hands-on experiences that do more than show a taught concept are crucial to teaching the observational skills and thought processes necessary for developing strong scientific thinking. After-the-lesson demos may strengthen fact retention but they don’t stimulate the “why” brain as well that the same demo before the lesson. At least some of the labs and hands-on opportunities should require the learner to design the experiment, ideally formulating the question from observations they’ve already made. It’s fine if not all do. There is plenty to learn from cookbook labs, including technique and the range of possibilities of how to answer a question.

Many lab manuals and texts don’t have this focus, either because of the classroom logistical issues when children ask questions and figure out a way to search for answer (for standard curriculum) or parental ease (homeschoolers are often looking for ease of delivery, understandably). If your favorite option doesn’t do this, alter the experiments a bit. Instead of passing the lab worksheet to your child, read it over and think. What’s the question the lab asks? If I give my child that question and the materials in the lab (plus a few — be creative) without the instructions but with plenty of time and some guidance, could my child find a way to answer the question? (In a later post, I’ll give some guidance on altering labs to be more student-driven and aimed at developing scientific thought.)

Even if your curriculum is full of cookbook labs that you’re uncertain of how to alter, don’t despair. Just ask questions not answered by the text directly. Don’t be afraid to ask the ones you don’t know the answers to, and don’t worry about settling on a single answer. You’re better off wondering and wandering to more sources to search for more answers. After all, a good amount of scientific work is research in response to a scientist’s questions. Again, refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Model asking questions that apply, evaluate, and analyze rather than simply require remembering and understanding. Your children will soon do the same.

Here’s a short list of options to consider. It’s not exhaustive. All assume parental involvement. (I’ve not looked for early learner science curriculum in many years.)

  • Building Foundations for Scientific Learning (Bernard Nebel, PhD): Written for parents and educators, these books are designed for non-educators with little science background guiding learners in pre-high school science. Suggested materials are inexpensive and easy to find. This is NOT a workbook or text but rather a source for the instructor.
  • Middle School Chemistry (American Chemical Society): While designed for schools, this curriculum is an easy-to-use, sound introduction to the fundamentals of chemistry for young learners. The materials are easily obtained, and the lessons are clear for both learner and teacher. Here’s my review and materials list.
  • Biology Inquiries (Martin Shields): A full complement of inquiry-based biology labs for middle and high schoolers with clear directions for the instructor and plenty of questions for the students. The materials are generally available through Home Science Tools and your local drug store. (I teach out of this book when I teach Quarks and Quirks Biology.)
  • Exploring the Way Life Works (Hoagland, Dodson, Hauck): This is a text, but it’s the friendly type. This is the text for my Quarks and Quirks Biology course, used along side Campbell’s traditional Concepts and Connections to fill in some details. You’ll not find any fill-in-the-blank questions at the end of each chapter of this thematically arranged book that moves, in each chapter, from the very small to the very large.
  • CPO Science: CPO’s labs offer some fine opportunity for inquiry learning, and the texts are clear and easy to use. However, they often require specialized lab materials. The science-comfortable homeschooling parent can often improvise, but this may be a barrier to some. It’s worth a look on their student pages, however, at the student record sheets for examples of how questions about observations can lead to deeper thinking. (Here’s my review of CPO Middle School Earth Science. I’ve used Foundations in Physics and Middle School Physical Science as well, and find them all similar in style and strong in content.)
  • Just about any curriculum you like to use, with some modifications: Inquiry can happen alone but it’s fostered by community, even if that is just parent and child at the kitchen table or in the backyard. Take the curriculum you’re using now and read through it ahead of your child. Before your child reads, ask questions about what your child thinks now, or perhaps ponder together how something might work. Search online for a demonstration that will encourage thinking before the informational part of a lesson. Ask questions that reach beyond remembering and understanding. Yes, this is harder than presenting the book and some paper for answers or simply doing the labs as given, but scientific thinking isn’t fostered by multiple choice and fill-in-the blanks. It takes conversation.

There’s more to learning science and scientific thought than curriculum, and even a terrific inquiry-based curriculum only the starts the gears of the young scientific mind. My next post will discuss other tools for teaching scientific thinking that you just might want to include in your science learning at home. While you’re waiting, go outside. Watch the ants or the clouds (and see where the ants go when the clouds come). Ask questions. Look for answers. Science is everywhere.

 

 

 

Follow the Ant (Science and Scientific Thinking)

This is the first of two pieces on skills needed to function well in a complicated world. This time, I’ll explore science and scientific thinking.  I’ll list and discuss some resources for encouraging scientific learning and thought in a short post to follow. After that, I’ll explore critical thinking. As always comments are welcome, especially the good resources kind. For the introductory post, read Essential Skills for a Modern World.

Science. Let’s start with what science is not. Science is not the sum of memorized facts about DNA, Avogadro’s number, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, electron orbitals, the gravitational constant, and tectonic plate movements. It’s not equation-spouting, not those about projectile motion or glycolysis.  It’s certainly not about memorizing who did what when, taking the worst of some history classes to a subject that already is viewed by some to be hard. Science (and math) are too often feared from an early age and far too often taught to young children by people who learned to fear them when they were young.

Science is asking questions about the natural world, musing about answers, carefully and thoughtfully considering what scientists in the field have found before, experimenting as exploration and/or confirmation, and then asking more questions. Children do much of this naturally, watching the world and acting upon it, our carefully timed commentary providing a factual base with context. We name flowers and the birds as our children wonder at them. We explain the tides, the rain, the stars, and the bruise on the knee.

Unless we don’t know. Then, if we’re not distracted by what’s for dinner tonight or whose socks are on the floor again, we look it up — we do research. Better yet, we include the questioning child in the looking up process, or perhaps we pass the job to them. “Hmm. You could research that,” became my phrase as my children’s questions outpaced my answers and library (and before Google was such a dear friend). It didn’t take long before my prompt was unnecessary. “I’ll look that up,” became a usual child-offered solution to his curiosity.

Often, once their question is answered, the exploration is done. But sometimes the questions keep coming. Then, if we’re brave and unafraid of messes and more unanswered questions that will follow, there are experiments. Kids experiment naturally, often asking the next question after repeating an experiment a number of times. (Water and dirt make mud. What happens with water and sand? What happens if I let the mixture dry overnight?) Many science curricula squash this question-experiment-question cycle by providing only experiments (or, more appropriately, demonstrations done by kids) that have answers provided. These cookbook-style experiments are easy on those teaching and have predictable “correct” answers while teaching children what we don’t want them to learn about science: When you enter an experiment, you should know how it will end.

Scientists don’t do it that way. Scientists overflow with curiosity, the sort that takes them to the internet, the library, their bookshelves, the scientist down the hall, and, eventually, to the laboratory. No one source gives them the question or the route to answering it. Relying upon their own experience and the procedures and findings of those who came before, they formulate both the question and experiments, perhaps expecting a particular outcome but never wed to finding it, lest they see what isn’t there or guide the experiment to give the desired answer. And often, quite often, the results aren’t what they hoped or expected, leading to more questions, more experiments, and more research.

“But my child isn’t going to be a scientist. Why does this sort of science education matter?”

DSC00031It matters because, whatever line of work our children pursue, science permeates their modern world. Climate change. Nuclear reactors and bombs. Gene therapy. Stem cells. Invasive species. Missions to Mars. Ebola, TB, and malaria. Alternative energy sources. Water contaminants. If we are to be responsible citizens in this complex world, lobbying and voting for or against legislation on all those issues and more, we need to understand a good deal of science as well as how science works. We can’t vote on what we don’t understand, and we can’t simply vote against something that scares us or will increase our taxes or personal expenses. We need some understanding of the way our universe works to even read about the risks of radiation leaks from nuclear power plants, and we almost always need to research more before we go out and vote on laws.

If we want our children to be able to make responsible and safe personal (and, eventually, family) health decisions, they must be able to read the latest article on gluten or vaccinations or DNA testing and hold up the latest article to careful scrutiny. Junk science and junk reporting abound, especially in health and medical science. In an era where prescription drugs are advertised on TV and pseudoscience, especially about health, fills the internet, we need more than ever to think like a scientist. How many people were in that study? What was the control? Was it double-blinded? Were the researchers funded by Company X, Y, or Z, who just happen to produce or sell drug A, supplement B, or treatment C? Has the study been replicated by someone else somewhere else? Are the results statistically meaningful and practically meaningful?  What questions does this piece of reporting raise? Where can I find out more?

“But I don’t know that much science! How can I teach my kids when I don’t know a beta particle from a leukocyte and couldn’t tell you what’s going on when I take a breath anymore than explain why a bowling ball and a marble, when dropped from the same height, hit the ground at the same time.” 

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Start the way your children started. Look at the natural world with new eyes, seeing the ant on your deck as a subject of study rather than occasion for a call to a pest management company. Find the moon every evening, noticing where it is at the same time each night. Watch bread rise and eggs cook.

Then, ask questions. Why does the ant follow the path it does? Where does the ant live, and what does it eat? When does the moon vanish from sight, and just where in the sky is it when it does? Why does it change shape, at least to our eyes?  What’s in those bubbles in my bread, and why do egg whites turn white and firm when cooked?

Next, look for answers about what interests you most. Research the phases of the moon. Read a book about the science of cooking for answers about egg whites, rising bread, and more.  Use reputable sources (applying your critical thinking skills, to be discussed in a future next post), eschewing the junk science and poor reporting found in books, internet sources, articles, and, too often, those around us who also aren’t sure about science. (Charlatans and the simply not scientific abound.)  Be persistent, especially about what is new. Science has a working edge, and it’s at this edge that most mistakes (and poor science reporting) seem to occur. But even old ideas can be wrong or in need of tweaking, so follow the years of research and debate as you read and explore. The way our universe works doesn’t change, but our understanding of it certainly does.

And follow the ant. Watch her (and it is almost definitely a ‘her’), seeing where she goes and whom she meets. Even if she joins a throng of fellow ants, watch your ant as best you can. Does she lead, follow, or neither? Why do you think this behavior occurs? How does she interact with the other ants around her, and what happens after interactions?

Then feed the ant. Set out, on a small index card, a smudge of jelly and place it near the ants.  A few inches away, place another card with chicken or a bit of egg yolk, perhaps, something filled with protein and fat rather than sugar. You pick, as it’s your experiment, but pick with reason and logic. Then sit and watch. Watch longer than you think you can, returning at regular intervals if you must look away. See what happens. What do these ants like? What do they do with the food? How do they find it? Do all of them go for it, or only some?

When the sun sets and the ants return to their home, think. Ask more questions. Consider more ways to find answers. Find a fantastic book or reliable website on ants (see below), and read what interests you. There’s no test, no final paper for which to study. There is only a world to watch and explore and research to read and ponder as you explore the natural world through the lens of scientific exploration and thought.

Ant Resources:

 

 

Essential Skills for a Modern World

IMG_1380 Again I’ve been disappointed while on the internet. I should know better than to expect scientific accuracy and critical thinking skills in the world of social media, where opinions are valued over truth, and truth is often “Because I said so” or “Because someone on the internet said so.” It’s circular reasoning reinforced by ego and emotion. No matter how many times I blunder, trying to inject scientific rigor and critical thinking into conversations filled with fear, supposition, and emotion, I don’t seem to learn that far too many adults don’t understand enough science or have enough critical thinking skill to navigate today’s information-filled world.

If pressed today to pick two skills essential to teach our children and ourselves, I’d pick an understanding of science and the ability to think critically. I’ve not the hubris to suggest an entire list of most important skills to teach your child, whether they learn at home or at school. The list would grow long and be impossible to order, as we live in a world where life is far more complicated than a hundred years back. Reading. Writing. Math. Government (and history). Housekeeping. Cooking. Personal finance. Swimming. Apologizing. Interviewing. Music and art, or at least the appreciation of them. Rudimentary social skills. How to be wrong. How to use your computer and phone, and how to help your grandmother do the same. Patience. Promptness. Someone stop me, please!

When I watch the reality show that is social media and read through what passes as reporting on politics, science, current events, health, and nutrition, I realize that two skills are poorly lacking for many people, even degreed and credentialed people: the ability to think critically and a basic knowledge of the mechanisms of science and the scientific process. These basic skills often are required in tandem, although there is plenty of need to employ them independently of each other. I need critical thinking to decide if a source I’ve found is objective and informed. I need an understanding of science to appreciate where that doctor is going with that long, flexible tube and just what he expects to find and why I should care.

Many times we need both. Understanding the infectious diseases that fill the news and our world  — Ebola, measles, malaria, influenza, and more – requires some basic understanding of virus versus bacteria and immunology, but it also requires the ability to think about risk without letting fear cloud our judgement. It takes critical thinking to appreciate risks correctly — the risks of acquiring those disease ourselves, the risks inherent in the ways we treat those with the diseases, and the risk to the world’s divergent populations if we don’t. Public health touches private health in ways that can benefit or harm either, and it takes merging science with critical thinking to see how that works.

In our highly technical world, where so much of what we encounter each day has a chip and is run by a program, comfort with science and skills in critical thinking are more important than ever. How many of us understand the basic way computer programs work or even what an algorithm is? Not the programming languages themselves that are behind our Angry Birds, Messenger, Facebook, Instagram, Google Everything, and Pandora, but the basics of the stuff of programming. On and off; ones and zeros; procedures, loops, and subroutines. Whether we’re wired overtly or not, computers and the programs that tell them what to do are woven into our daily lives, keeping inventory in grocery stores, managing countless systems in our cars, and protecting our well-earned money. Thinking logically, part of critical thinking, paired with some basic knowledge of physics, can help us better appreciate what limits (and doesn’t limit) technology today. You can be certain that hackers have at least some critical thinking skills in place and not a small amount of computer science skill as well. While we may not be able to keep up with every advance or learn any programming language in its entirety, understanding more about these ubiquitous systems is wise.

In my next two posts, I’ll explore what I see as the desirable skills in critical thinking and science and pose some suggestions for how to pass those skills onto our children while developing them in ourselves. I’ll recommend a bit of curriculum to help these processes along.  I’ll share what I’ve done at home to nurture these skills in my boys as I help them to grow into adults who better understand their world and know how to find out more about that world in a way that’s smart and responsible. Passing on these skills guarantees them years of frustration with those they may meet in social media, at meetings at work, and in their personal lives, but knowing they will leave the nest asking questions and pulling from their bank of scientific understanding helps me sleep a bit more easily.

 

Review: Models for Writers (Short Essays for Composition)

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 9.09.33 AMPerhaps the best part of teaching writing to other people’s children is the curriculum I accumulate along the way. Over the past two years, I’ve purchased more writing books than I could have ever justified buying for my two boys alone. I’ve tried a few that have flopped (Brave Writer and One Year Adventure Novel), used some old favorites (Michael Clay Thompson’s Paragraph Town and Essay Voyage), and found some new friends. Still more sits on my shelf, waiting for the right student to come along. The longer I teach gifted students to write, the easier it is to make guesses about what will work and what will flop, but  as children are as different from each other as are snowflakes from one another, I’ve tossed very little aside for good.

Models for Writers: Short Essays for Composition (Alfred Rosa and Paul Eschholz) has served as assigned reading in college and high school composition classrooms for years. I teach out of the 9th and 10th editions, which are recent enough to be easy to find and old enough to make used copies easy to afford. (I’ve never seen the urgency in having the newest edition of a writing text anyway.) There is little difference between these two editions, so I’ll not be drawing distinctions between them. I use this text after Michael Clay Thompson’s Essay Voyage and before more formal argumentation texts, finding it works well after a student understands the essay writing process overall while providing a bridge for writers before they move to formal and cited academic writing, as in MCT’s Academic Writing 1.

Models for Writers is divided into four sections. The first three (The Writing Process, The Elements of the Essay, and The Language of the Essay) focus on just what an essay is and how it is put together. The first section covers the basics of all writing, from prewriting through first draft to revising and editing. It’s an effective review for students who’ve done projects requiring prereading, not a guide for the first-time writer.  The second section does much of what MCT’s Essay Voyage does — it addresses what writers must master to make any essay work: thesis, unity, organization, beginnings and endings, paragraphs, transitions, and effective sentences. The fourth, Types of Essays, the section I use most heavily when I teach one-on-one,  explores the many genre of essay: illustration, definition, comparison and contrast, narration, argument and more are explained fully with examples. The book concludes with a short treatment of the research paper. I’d not call this last section sufficient for teaching the process of writing from sources, but it does serve a fine introduction to the craft. It touches what comes next, just as the first section provides a short look back.

For all but the first section of the book, the format is the same. Rosa and Eschholz provide a few pages of instruction on the topic at hand. These brief but comprehensive portions of each chapter give the reader the language of the topic and the basics of the technique at hand. What follows are three or four essays to serve as examples for the topics at hand. Essays by Russell Baker, Eudora Welty, Helen Keller, Annie Dillard, Natalie Goldberg, and many others illustrate the chapter’s lesson. After each essay are questions for study and discussion, questions focused on helping the student analyze the given essay in the context of the lessons it’s supposed to illustrate. These questions demand a set of skills I’ve not found elsewhere: careful reading followed by deep thought not just about what the writer wrote but about the devices the writer used in the essay.

These are hard questions for many young students, quite gifted ones included. Even organic writers (not the sort grown without pesticides but the kind who were born with stories to tell and a keyboard attached to their fingers) struggle when it’s time to talk about elements of writing within another’s writing. Initially, I used the book without those questions, assigning the readings as examples. That worked fairly well, as we could talk about some of the patterns a writer would use or note a particular way to handle an introduction. Using the book this way won’t shortchange a writer, as there is plenty to learn without those questions. But despite the struggle they cause for some students, these questions are generally worth the grapple. They move a student to think about what they read and then, hopefully, about their own writing in a critical and analytical way. Whether discussed or assigned as written work, using at least some of these question sets will bring your writer further along in composition and reading skills.

After the questions come classroom activities which, I suppose, would be helpful for one teaching in a classroom. A few are amenable to using one-on-one, but most require a partner or small group. The suggested writing assignments that follow each essay are far more helpful. Note: Some of these assignments aren’t directly addressing the skill at hand while others are more chapter-related.  Because I like my students to have some say in what they write, I usually ask them to look over particular assignments in these sections, selecting options that would elicit writing that best addresses the purpose of the chapter.

As mentioned earlier, I use Models for Writers after I’ve taught the essay via Essay Voyage or with students having some basic command of the essay, understanding the principles of the form and format all essays share. Because of that command, I start with section four, which addresses the types of essays one can write. (Note: The division into types helps teach techniques that might be hard to sort out otherwise. Few essays fit neatly into a single category. A comparison and contrast piece may have highly descriptive passages, for example.) This book could certainly be used start to finish for a writer less familiar with the form.  I generally assign material from the first three sections as needed with my more experienced writers, combining, say, the chapter on introductions and conclusions with the chapter on definition writing. This reinforces the essential techniques and parts of the essay while providing context for using that skill while writing. It’s a flexible text.

I like Models for Writers. It’s approach to technique is straightforward and logical. It’s essays are highly engaging and carefully chosen to illustrate the point at hand. Its assignments for essay types are varied and can easily be expanded upon. The essays are, however, chosen with a college audience in mind. If you have a particularly sensitive child or if your child is quite young, pre-read the essays you assign, ensuring they are appropriate for your child. All essays come with an introduction to orient the reader to the context of the essay (time, publication location, author background). Don’t skip these sections, as they help guide the reader through the piece.

What happens after Models for Writers? Michael Clay Thompson’s Academic Writing 1 could follow or be used along with Models. I’ve also used Writing from Sources (Brenda Spatt) when I want to develop a student’s ability to summarize, paraphrase, and quote effectively. They Say, I Say (Graff, Birkenstein, and Durst) helps students effectively incorporate the writing of others in to argumentative writing. New to me this year is Everything’s an Argument (Lunsford, Ruszkiewicz, and Walters), a book teaching argumentation. Whatever text one chooses, it’s likely time to move into using outside sources for one’s writing, learning the techniques of academic writing. The essay skills learned in Models give writers a strong start for that next task.

Note: I’m unable to accept new private students this semester as my docket is full. Should I have openings for weekly students, I’ll note availability at Write with Sarah, my professional website.  I do have room for project coaching, a service detailed on my website.

 

 

 

The Beginning of the End

IMG_0067It’s cliché to say that it happens when you’re not looking. It’s trite even think, as I look upon the young man who sits across the dinner table from me, that yesterday he was only ten or five or two. Time passes. We expect it to and often even want it do, sometimes willing it to go faster. Colic couldn’t pass soon enough, nor could countless illnesses. Surly and irritable patches, rare and brief in my older, weren’t to be lingered over, nor were his periods of anxiety and sadness.  Of course, I could no more accelerate those than linger over the piano recitals (at least when he was playing), the snuggly read-alouds, the enthusiastic ah-ha! moments, and the happiness I experience when watching him be happy. So it goes. Somehow, when we look back, we see it all at top-speed. We warn those with small children: “Enjoy it! It goes so fast.” Others told us the same, after all.

Suddenly, but not really, he’s seventeen. A high school senior applying to colleges. The beginning of the end of our homeschooling tenure. He sits for the road test for his driver’s license in a few weeks. He starts his third semester dual enrolled at a local community college, launching into eleven credits he’ll add to the twenty-five he’s earned so far. He is taller than me by enough that I have to scoot my seat forward after he drives, and he seems to love little more than looking down as he stands next to me. He can lift what I can’t lift and tell me a host of things that I don’t understand. He has skills I don’t, interests that he’s explored deeply without me, and dreams unknown to me that are his alone to savor.

Children always have their own unspoken thoughts, dreams, fears, and desires, but it may not be until their teens that, to their parents, the breadth and depth of this private life becomes so apparent.  It’s hubris to think one can completely know one’s child, and it only takes reflecting back on my own childhood to realize that a rich interior life kept private starts quite young. I say I know my boys well while remembering that they are sovereign beings with their own valid ways of thinking, feeling, interacting, and being.  That’s how it should be. Growing up requires recognizing that sense of self as separate from parents, siblings, and friends.

Thanks to homeschooling, my older and I have had plenty of time together. Homeschooling produces an intimacy that, for either party, can feel like a warm embrace or a chokehold, depending on the day. It’s easy to let homeschooling take over, becoming a parent’s primary purpose and identity. But all of us were something else before we parented and homeschooled. As have many homeschooling parents, I’ve dropped my pre-homeschooling professional life into a lower gear, working a bit on weekends to keep up my skills as a physician assistant but veering sharply from my intent a decade and a half ago to seek a faculty position in a PA program.  As many homeschooling parents have also done, I’ve built a small business, a job that can be done from home. It’s something for me, something along with my writing that is not about my children (although I doubt it would have happened without my experience homeschooling them). In that intimacy of homeschooling, I think it’s essential to retain an adult identity beyond the very important job of raising and educating children.

After all, at some point, if all goes well, they graduate and eventually leave home. Homeschooling isn’t a tenure-track job. It ends, either after that last high school year or earlier, depending on family choices. And from what I hear, there really is life after homeschooling. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a different path or even a path after my children leave at least the homeschooling nest. I can’t imagine our lives without it while still planning (and often yearning) for the day I’m out of a job.

Some days I second-guess myself. The days where friction is high and teens are being teens (and mom in her mid-forties is being a mom in her mid-forties), I wonder if we’d get along better if we weren’t sitting so close to one another and if someone else could give the instructions and do the reminding for six hours a day. But life’s not a controlled experiment, and second-guessing the past is a frustratingly futile task that always ends in tears. We’re here, and he’s seventeen. It’s the beginning of the end.

In just over two weeks, he starts his senior year of high school with the next round of classes at the community college. Two weeks after that, his homeschool group starts. An online class starts whenever he’s ready.  I’m still searching for a few missing pieces — a an acceptable government class and maybe a bit more literature. I’m fighting my urge to shove it all in, everything I wish we’d done over the past decade, everything a well-rounded student should have.  I wonder at what I’ve neglected while knowing that there really are only so many hours in a day.

It’s the beginning of the end, and end followed by a new beginning somewhere studying something that is not administered by mom. Before that beginning, there is a transcript to wrap up in a bow, paragraphs to write while wearing my counselor hat, and decisions to ponder with my son, along with a good amount of prodding as he works on his applications. There is plenty to do this final year of homeschooling my older, plenty to do for both of us. After all, he has a whole new beginning just around the bend.

 

 

Changes of State

IMG_0553After four months of not blogging or otherwise writing anything more than website content and emails, I’m feeling a bit wobbly as I figure out how to fit writing into a very busy and quite changed life. I now have two teens, one entering his senior year and the other starting eighth grade. I’m married after many years of being a solo adult in the house. I’m also taking on more work under the (hopefully not false) belief that older children will be more independent children, thus creating some additional space for me to expand my professional life. Oh. And I’m still homeschooling.

Somewhere in all that flux, I stopped writing. While I needed to put my time and energy into the changes our family has been experiencing, I’ve missed the outlet writing provides. I process when I write. I move from minutiae to main idea, finding themes and patterns and often gaining perspective. But the last four months required privacy of thought and experience. They have demanded time, attention, and planning, accompanied with heaps of patience and perseverance. Teens. A husband. Work.  Oh, so many deep breaths.

Teens. Somehow, without permission, my younger son entered his teens. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s “twelve plus one,” insisting he’s not a teen until he’s fourteen, because that’s when high school formally begins. Whether this is a bit of reluctance to be grouped as the suspect being named “teen” or just a quirky way to spin a milestone that he doesn’t see as meaningful (“No, I don’t feel any different now that I’m twelve plus one.”), I don’t know. When I do the family body count, I find two teens, two beings wrestling with autonomy, responsibility, hormonal fluctuations, dramatic brain changes, and the necessity of regular showers. For the past few years, I’ve found myself holding my breath, relishing the relatively easy preteen years of my younger son, wondering what changes would happen. It is getting harder again, as it should. Teens have a hard job, growing up into themselves.

Marriage. Sharing a home with an adult who loves me deeply delights me. The preparation for sharing a home and a life challenged all of us, with all the physical work of moving and the emotional upheaval that goes with even the best of change.  It’s taken less time than I anticipated to find our rhythm and for the boys to adjust to the change. It’s still new, and I know we have plenty to learn about living together as a couple and as a foursome, but the joy seems to deepen by the day. It’s the most worthwhile sort of work, learning to love more completely and communicate effectively within that shared love of family.

Work. For two years, I’ve taught writing to gifted homeschoolers via the internet. One-on-one, I’ve worked with children ages ten through sixteen on academic writing (essays and research papers) with a bit of fiction writing worked in for those who feel the need. I’ve also coached a few graduate students through their academic writing projects and dissertation proposals, helping them organize their thoughts and present them more professionally while nudging along skills in grammar, usage, and punctuation. (See Write With Sarah for more information. My individual tutoring spots are full for 2014/15, but I’m available for coaching on a project-by-project basis for writers of any age.)  I’m also offering copy editing, a new service that will likely take some time to develop, but seems a natural extension of my coaching.

More work: This year, I’m also serving as writing coach for Online G3, an online source of classes in the humanities (and now science!) designed for gifted kids. (Click here my review of Online G3.) Joining an organization that’s been the highlight of my younger son’s homeschooling experience is heady and daunting. My technological acumen is, ahem, rudimentary, and I’m slowly wading my way through electronic classroom software and forum software. I have fine guides, and I’m keeping my focus on the content of this endeavor and trying not to fret about the tech end too much. It will come together. I’m sure!

Oh. And homeschooling. Homeschooling older teens often consists more of administrative duties than teaching duties. Dual enrollment courses for my older require me to drive a fair amount, write a few checks each semester, and keep the internet provider paid, but I do little actual teaching for my older. Despite years of maintaining his transcript, I still find myself awed by the responsibility of the task. What exactly is a high school credit measured by, time spent, material learned, or some magical mix between them? What do I grade, and what is just deemed “passed”? I’ve gained some confidence in this role, but I can’t say I’m comfortable reducing his educational experience to a few sheets of paper full of numbers and letter grades. Oh, and college applications. I’ll have on my counselor hat for that task.

My younger still is transcript-free, but one administrative job this fall is to start one for him. I’m still actively teaching him, although online classes and homeschool group classes put me in the part-time teacher category. Math lessons are done with me. Latin is at least graded by me, as I’m not devoting myself to actually learning the Latin with him. ( I know my limits, and he’s far better at the language than I.) Chemistry, however, is all mine — my younger son along three other teens will be my students for lab, lecture, and hopefully a fire-free year of high school chemistry. I’ve started to plan but still have a good way to go before the syllabus is complete. Oh, there’s work to be done…

So with teens, marriage, work, and homeschooling in front of me, I return to blogging and other writing endeavors. I’ve missed writing. Writing offers time for me to be present with a single line of thought, and while I’d not name that process meditative, I’d call it mindful. I need more of that in a life that feels constructed of dozens of pieces, many calling me at the same time. I want the peace of the process brings and the clarity that results from the sorting and thinking as I go. How it fits into an increasingly busy life remains to be seen, but I need this part of me back.

 

 

 

Homeschooling in the Digital Age

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For more on homeschooling highschoolers, check out the GHF Blog Hop. 

“Time to get off the computer.”

I don’t know how often I say that to my boys. I say it politely, adding a please. I say it with a time attached, giving a number of minutes. I say it with fewer words, each a sentence of its own: “Get. Off. Now.”  I say it with more: “If you continue to sit at that computer after I’ve asked you to get off, you’ll not see that game tomorrow (or this week, this month, in a lifetime of Thursdays).” I’ve yelled it. I’ve written it as a note or passed it as a text. Some I’ve even cried while saying it.

This is homeschooling in the digital age.

When I started this gig at the start of 2005, mom to one seven-year-old and one three-year-old, we had one computer, and we used it minimally. I checked my email. My older son might play a game for 30 minutes a day. I sometimes sought out homeschooling information and read through the archives of the TAGMAX and the like. My cell phone was a pay-as-you go, and texting wasn’t a verb I knew. As a family, we were fairly strict about “screen time.” We had a few educational games (remember Zoombinis?), and TV watching was limited to documentaries and other overtly educational programing. Our internet connection was slow, and our cable line nonexistent. We were largely unplugged.

We’ve come a long way on the technology train since then. As I write this, my older son, almost 17,  is in the basement on the computer he built, an “ancient” laptop (5 years old) nearby on the floor, sporting an operating system that isn’t familiar to me and being used for purposes I don’t understand. He’s doing his biology using online software from Plato Courseware. Before that, he worked on his 3D Programming course and his Intro to Statistics course, both free offerings through Udacity, one of several available MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. Later, he’ll log into his course on the local community college’s website to work on his Advanced C++ programming class or English 101 course. At some point, he’ll turn to his Java homework, and while the homeschooling group class he attends this week is a live, in-person experience, the programming work is all on the computer, of course. After that, he’ll click through to  Codeacademy, his go-to site for informally picking up computer languages, where he’s picking up Ruby, a language, he tells me, that is something like Python, which still means little to a mom who learned Basic and Pascal decades ago. Then have an IRL human experience in the afternoon: real teens chatting and eating while real moms drink coffee and chat. Then, after an IRL dinner at the kitchen table, he’s likely back down to his computer to Skype with either programming online friends from the college or to Skype/Minecraft with a good buddies (most whom he knows in their human form).

His brother, twelve, who’s at another machine built by his brother, is on the main floor, working (I hope) on his Marine Biology Coursera course, another MOOC offering, or perhaps on one of his literature classes from Online G3. He could be checking in on what’s due for Biology, an IRL class I teach but that has assignments posted on the web and sites to visit on the web. Perhaps he’s honing his latest essay about aquariums and fish-keeping, using Google Drive for writing and the internet for research. Either way, after practicing the very real piano, tending to his water-, fish-, and plant-filled aquarium, and reading a book made of paper, he’ll spend an hour or two on Skype with a friend he knows in human form and play Minecraft. Loudly. Then we’re off to fencing — the live type, with foils, epees, sabers, and real humans.

As I read through those paragraphs, those ones that plant my children, for hours a day, a foot or two from a screen, I’m filled with a mix of awe, sadness, and concern. I’m awed at the offerings my kids have. Homeschooling has never been deeper in its offerings than it is now. While my younger still spends a few hours a day at the proverbial kitchen table with books, papers, and a real pencil, working with Mom, more and more the picture of homeschooling is more akin to partaking in a buffet than the family-style meal it used to be, and the buffet includes some incredible online offerings.

This metaphor, introduced to me by a friend as she related how she explained their eclectic homeschooling style to friends and the Powers that Be on the college Common App (meaning even the college application process has gone digital), fits how many families now homeschool. I can’t think of a more apt comparison. This monstrous buffet caters to learners of all styles and with all sensibilities. There are endless choices: traditional texts and workbooks, online classes for free, online courses for more than free, homeschool classes via co-op or even school district, in-school electives, DVD programs, subscription classes, field trips created for homeschoolers, individualized instruction online or live, dual enrollment classes at local colleges and universities — or online, and much, much more. It’s overwhelming, frankly.

A decade ago, when homeschooling was the back-up plan if the second school in two years failed, I talked to friends and paged through catalogues. I dog-eared pages and took trips to the local teacher’s store. I attended used curriculum sales, frequented used curriculum sites, and purchased the leftovers of my friends. We were at the library weekly, often with dozens of books exchanging residence during the visit. Our homeschooling day was a mix of reading aloud, discussing any variety of topics, working through math workbooks, doing science experiments, watching science videos, and playing. The computer had little to do with it.

Today, our internet connection is our lifeline. It links my younger son, who has Asperger’s and finds real-life interaction fatiguing and bewildering,  to classes, friends, and aquarium enthusiasts (he’s a bit fish-obsessed). I’ve seen his social skills grow, interestingly, and I attribute some of that to the practice with people without bodies that he gets through audio-only Skyping with friends. (Facial expressions and body language can overwhelm some people on the autism spectrum. He does experience people live often enough to be building skills in this area of communication as well.) It connects my older son with friends, other programmers, a few mentors, and even to students who can benefit from his programming knowledge. It brings him classes he can’t get from a book and encourages the rabbit trails that have brought him to find himself fascinated with computer engineering and programming.

And yet I remain uncertain about my sons’ relationship with their computers and the worlds they open to them. It’s hard to manage the lure of the online world, full of stimulation and distraction. I struggle myself, and I’m far from my impulse-driven teens. As a forty-something adult, I find myself checking email, online Scrabble, text messages, and Facebook far often than I likely should, distracted from writing and assorted computer-based obligations. Those temptations threaten the rest of my time, with a smart phone that makes access to diversions way too easy. So if I struggle, an adult with a (theoretically) fully developed frontal lobe with no deficits of executive function except those induced by child-rearing and homeschooling, how hard must it be for them, with their developing teen brains, to manage the Siren’s song of the digital world, balancing work and pleasure with habit and addiction?

Mighty hard. And so I set limits. I insist on meals at the kitchen table and time away from screens.  I plan time for them away from the screen and with live humans. But as my children age, I give them more say in how they manage their time, on the computer and off. This is part of their education, the management of whims and work, the balance of life offline with life (and often work) online. With practice, support, judicious limits, plenty of reminders, and some missteps on my part and theirs, I’m confident they can move healthily from homeschooling teens to working adults while living in the digital age.