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.



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.

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.




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.

Review: Getting Started With Latin

Screen Shot 2013-04-18 at 12.42.18 PMWe have a language gap around here. I’m not a natural at foreign languages, and my one year of high school French, while not harmful to my GPA, hardly enamored me with the work involved in learning them. My older son’s learning challenges made learning a foreign language close to impossible. We tried home-based and online-based programs for Latin and Spanish, but we had no success. He’s moved on to American Sign Language courses at the university, a kinesthetic language that works well with his strengths and avoids his weakness, such as rote memory and attention to spelling.

So as my younger son approaches middle school age, I’ve panicked a bit. I don’t have the brain space to deeply learn a foreign language with him: general awareness is my only hope. My French was never terribly useful, and nearly 30 years later is nearly nonexistant. My younger had mentioned learning German, but I knew no way at this point of his life to make that successful and could provide no assistance. So I gently mentioned Latin. He’s a fan of Michael Clay Thompson, with his stem-based vocabulary, and he’s a master at grammar and memorization, and he appreciated my concerns about finding an appropriate setting for him to learn German. So Latin it was.

Getting Started with Latin (Beginning Latin for Homeschoolers and Self-Taught Students of Any Age), by William E. Linney has been our starting place. Linney approaches Latin gradually and, over 132 single page lessons, introduces the learner to basic Latin grammar. It’s not a full year of Latin, but it’s a fine grounding.  I’m using this book with my younger son, now eleven, who will start formal Latin study with Karen Karpinnen through Lone Pine Classical School, an online school based in Colorado dedicated to high school level Latin study for homeschoolers. Our purpose is to build comfort with the language, especially the ideas of declension rather than sentence order driving meaning and gender in language.

With only one new idea per lesson, this is a gentle approach to a complicated language. Linney covers the first and second declension, two conjugations of present tense verbs, the concept of gender, and a handful of adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, and conjunctions. The vocabulary is relatively small – farmers, sailors, beasts, and women build, sail, swim, and plow in a variety of combinations, but this decreased vocabulary allows the learner to focus on learning the grammar itself rather than on memorizing voluminous vocabulary lists. I’m decent at the former but not so strong in the latter, and with almost no study, I’m keeping up with the poets who carry writing tablets (but never desire to swim to the island) and the farmer’s stories, told often to the girls. That’s miraculous.

It may not be the most scintillating material to translate, but this sound beginner’s text is entirely nonthreatening, an essential feature for this foreign language-phobic mom. It’s also easy to teach. A motivated student could move through the 132 lessons solo, translating from Latin to English the 10 sentences at the end of each lesson, but we’re doing this together, sitting on the couch and reviewing the lessons together. He does keep a notebook of vocabulary, with each noun written in its ten forms and each verb conjugated (first person). While we’ve not been chanting the conjugations and declensions together, he’s figured out that that step helps and does it on his own. (Did I mention he’s my self-motivated and highly driven child?)  If we’re stuck, the answers are in the back of the book, but so far, we’re rarely stuck.

The lessons are never longer than a single page, and the black-and-white pages with plenty of white space keep attention from drifting while making it easy to see the lesson at hand and only that lesson. Some lessons are reminders about English grammar, which we skip, since five levels of Michael Clay Thompson have given him firm grounding in that area. A learner who was less certain about subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, possession, and English verb conjugations might want to spend more time on those sections, although I’d not advise starting Latin without those ideas firmly in place in one’s native tongue. In addition to the 132 lessons are 18 notes about commonly used Latin phrases, such as ad hoc, summa cum laude, and caveat emptor. It’s a nice addition, reminding the user that Latin is in use today, beyond its role in naming genus and species and providing many of roots of English words.

Linney’s website provides files for pronunciation, both classical and ecclesiastical. Occasionally, pronunciation is covered in the book itself, but the website contains far more. We’ve not been using that resource regularly, I’ll admit, but it was initially helpful. We’re also not exactly speaking Latin to each other (what with the poet, sailors, and beasts not much applies to our daily life), but I have had my son compose sentences in Latin, which he also translates. It’s up to me to figure out if he’s correct, and this is only possibly because I’m learning along with him.  Like I said, I’m keeping up, a testament to how clear this book is.  I’m not giving tests, but given the material is cumulative, I can tell from his translation during lessons how he’s doing. If testing is desired, Linney recommends taking sentences from past lessons for translation or having the student translate from the recordings on the website.

We’re working through three lessons four days a week, a pace determined by our start date and desire to be done by mid-May.  We complete more chapters if one is an idea alone with no translations or an English grammar language, with the limit being three chapters requiring translation. Any fewer and I doubt we’d immerse enough to learn much. More and we’d likely retain less. My son then puts new vocabulary into his notebook and, if needed, later reviews that vocabulary.

At  twenty dollars for a nonconsumable text that is easy to use and effective in teaching Latin basics, Getting Started with Latin is one of the best homeschooling bargains around. My only complaint is that it is his only Latin text. Linney has a series of audio lectures based on The First Year of Latin, an 1902 text by Gunnison and Harley covering, at this writing, half the text. That’s a far less user-friendly text, however, and lectures have been slow to come out. But it is a free offering and, if reviews are any indication, well done. I’ll know better how well prepared my young son is for formal Latin study come fall when he starts high school level instruction. But given the breadth of material covered so cleanly and clearly and the rate of retention my son and I have demonstrated, I’m betting it’s done what I needed it to do.

Sharing the Path

How do you walk with a child? It’s easy at the start. At the beginning, you share every step. Whether held in arms, swaddled across the chest, strapped to one’s back, or pushed in a stroller, we walk with our babies.  Or at least they walk with us, captive to our tempo. If we’re paying attention, we modulate our tempo to the child’s needs, speeding up for the baby who cries when the rate drops or slowing and swaying as a small one falls asleep.

In retrospect, that was the easy part of the path. No, I’d not go by to those sleepless nights and endless days. I’ll admit I prefer the stages after that, the ones filled with questions and comments, sleep and independent trips to restrooms. But walking together is far less clear with older children. They run ahead, scaring us when they’re out of sight or too close to the road, the water, the dog, or the edge of the climber. They lag behind, stopping to watch an ant cross the path or to inquire about the same rock that’s been discussed on every walk for the past three months, enjoying the delight of the new as well as the repetition of the old. They never, it seems, match our tempo again.

Whether a homeschooling parent or not, the decision of how to walk with one’s child is not easy, nor is the execution of that plan. But educating at home adds many miles to the steps taken together, and those miles can be frightening, painful, joyful, or just rather mundane. As my children grow, I’m less certain about how to walk this path with them. It’s all well and good to say just walk by their side, but in reality, that’s not always easy or even desirable. Children need guidance. They need us not as mere followers to their whims but as steady guides. But how to guide?

I don’t know.

I know that sometimes, I feel like I’m holding a child back. Perhaps I’m asking one to practice a skill that I’d have needed more repetition to learn thoroughly, but he needs very little. It’s hard to put aside my own experience at those points — if it worked for me, it must be what will work for him.  Written out, the fallacy of that is obvious. In real time, it’s not that simple. My children learn amazingly fast — except when they don’t. It’s whiplash-inducing at times, as they fly forward through curriculum only to screech to a halt over something I’d never suspected would serve as their brick wall. Yesterday, my younger’s wall was dictionary key words. After discussions on the parallels between Lincoln and Obama and the universality of gravity, let’s just say this came as a bit of a surprise. It’s hard to know what subjects require repetition and what ones require only the slightest exposure.

Other times, a child tells me he’s ready for something — something that leaves me a bit anxious — and my first instinct is to reach out and hold him back. At two, that might have been a solo trip down the biggest slide. At fifteen, it seems to be Driver’s Ed. I wasn’t ready for the first, and I’m no where nearly ready for the second. Part of me wants to grab his hand and slow the pace to one that doesn’t scare me so much. And sometimes, that’s the best choice. As an adult, I have insight into actions and consequences my children just don’t have. Keeping them safe is my job. But letting them try what they might fail — even what might hurt them — is how they grow.

So follow the child, one says. Just watch the child. It’s not that simple. At times, kids need a prod — they need to step up the pace to get to where they need to go. This can be unpleasant. It may be the tightening of rules to assure school work is accomplished. It may be invoking earlier-than-desired waking times for kids who would spend all their days languishing in bed. As a child who was highly internally driven (and loved to please — yes, that has its own risks), taking what feel like mean and even Draconian measures to urge my own child into better organizational and life skills causes massive dissonance. Pushing, pulling, urging, coaxing, bribing, and rewarding. It all feels bad at times for a mom who just wants everyone to do the right thing because it is, after all, right.

But these are children whom I want to have choices. I want them to reach adulthood with options and the skills to exercise those options. Like it or not, that sometimes means part of our path is unpleasant for each of us. Over the past few years, I’ve had to do plenty of prodding to move my older to better habits that will serve him well later. I’ve felt torn the entire time. But here and there (and quite often lately), I’ve seen the proverbial light go on. Alarms are set. Calendars maintained. Organization self-imposed. And he’s happier. So am I.

I doubt this walk will be easier over the next few years. The push they feel to grow up tomorrow (often coexisting with the tug backwards they feel to stay dependent and young), will undoubtedly challenge my ability to walk with them as I’d like. I suppose they gradually will take their own path — in ways they’ve begun that years ago — and my job is to let them do that, hoping I’ve offered them the skills they need to walk that way with wisdom and integrity and being available when they want to walk together for bits. It’s a bit frightening, I’ll admit, while also being exhilarating. Sharing their paths with all the complications that doing so includes is simply part of my journey, and I’d not trade this walk for any other.



Heroic Homeschooling

(Thanks to Kirsten Lesko, author of quirky and laughing, for helping me out of my funk.)

A reader and fellow blogger recently commented that my homeschooling was a heroic act. I protested, but she pressed, giving me a hurrah for following my instincts.  I thought that through for a moment, then resumed my doubting. Many days, I find myself questioning where I am and why I’m here homeschooling my kids. I spend too much time worrying that I’m not doing enough for one child, or perhaps I’m doing too much for another. Either tact I take confirms my worst fears:  that I’m failing my kids.

Yes, I know that’s unlikely, but I often find myself caught in the “what’s going wrong” loop. I’m an optimistic person by nature, but I also have an exasperating tendency to look for fault. I can temper much of that tendency in public, but when my eye turns to my life, the fault-finder runs full-strength. Lately, my focus has been on what’s going wrong on the homeschooling front. I don’t expect it to all run smoothly all the time, but lately I’m seeing  holes in their homeschooling experience, and I’m panicking.

My older is 14, and if he were in school, he’d be in ninth grade.  Ninth grade.  That’s high school.  That’s transcript time. He doesn’t have one of those. In a fit of panic at the start of the year, I solicited my homeschooling high school mom-friends for templates of their transcripts.  While waiting for replies, I scoured the internet, searching of the perfect form on which to lodge his pertinent data. It’s not really the form that matters: it’s what goes on the form. I feel myself in mental free-fall, wondering if we’ve been doing anything in these last seven years.

So what’s the big deal about the transcript? First, I haven’t graded much of their work.  Sure, my older’s taken math tests and received grades for them since he started Algebra, several years back. And I graded his high school biology and chemistry tests (4 for each class).  But the rest of his work has gone ungraded, although hardly unevaluated.  Papers, lab reports, and problem sets are returned with places needing corrections marked. I look for improvement and mastery of the material at hand, not perfection. This means some papers go through two or three edits while others stop at one.  When the learning goal is reached, the assignment is done.

Sometimes we mutually agree when enough is enough. Sometimes neither of us can look at an assignment one more time without suffering all sorts of ills, and at that point, we’ll generally call it done. Those events often indicate that we have a gap between what I thought he could do and what he can do. If I view that gap constructively, I can structure the next assignment and intervening learning events to take steps to close that gap. But if I’m in a panicky state, I just, well, panic. And then go online to look for more transcript forms.

Given this method of evaluating our homeschooling, it’s hard to make a meaningful transcript template.  I’m too aware that “Mommy grades” aren’t helpful to future colleges — I don’t imagine too many homeschooling parents grant a “C” or lower, and I’d bet that the B’s are few and far between as well. I can’t see just pulling a grade out of the air, besides, with my tendency to see what’s not working, I’d likely seriously run my son’s GPA right into the ground.

Likely, that won’t matter.  Next fall, he’ll take a class or two at local university, a place where they’ll grade him without bias and with an organized plan. That’s my other panic point.  I’m a fairly organized homeschooler, but I retain a flexibility that defies the confines of the four-quarter school year that makes transcript-making easy. Ever since we started homeschooling, I’ve made mid-course directions with my older, leaving behind what wasn’t working for us and adjusting repeatedly to his rather hard-to-define learning challenges and nebulous learning style. When I don’t think about transcripts and college applications, this ever-shifting style works for me. The optimist in me is always sure that this shift or change will make the difference. And often, it does, at least for a while.

But ninth grade is here.  Try as I might, I can’t figure out how to explain much less evaluate with a single number or letter what he’s done this year. And my focus keeps centering on what’s missing. While some of our subject studies stand alone, many others merge together, with “English” wandering across the curriculum and “History” being a conglomeration of experiences that taught him much but defy grading. When I start to write it all down, all I see are the holes — the class left mid-year (for good reasons), the books unfinished, the continued lack of a foreign language despite honest attempts to find a way for that subject to work for him. My brain floods with the implications of my neglect.

A few days back, a day that benevolent commenter bestowed me with the title “heroic,” a forum I frequent carried a thread asking for what was going well for homeschooling families. As I read through the replies, I felt a bit of confidence and, dare I say it, hope. What is going well?  With that, my thoughts shifted.

For my older, piano is going well. He managed to successfully negotiate a new approach to his piano education, one that respects his desire to play more of the romantics and her concerns about him learning the technique to play a greater repertoire than his current fascination. His joy for the instrument returned, which is reflected in his practice, and he furthered his self-advocacy skills as well. He’s also taken an interest in politics, spurred somewhat by the election season and well-supported by a history class on American history and Middle-East/US relations he takes.  Somewhere in the past few months, he went from giving me a rather brief reporting of class topics to a longer discourse on a host of issues, illustrating an understanding that allows him to apply the events of the past to the present. And somewhere along the line, he became quite useful in solving my computer woes, a skill that happened completely without me.

My younger, whose struggles with the social dynamics life requires seems to be increasing lately, has written and published his first novel and continues to take in history in large gulps, filling much of his spare time with books, videos, and writing centered around history. By all measures, he’s academically thriving.  However, my attention often moves to what is not working, the ways his struggling emotionally and socially.  It took a stranger’s question to refocus me on what was going well.

I’m no hero.  I’m just a parent working hard to meet the needs of her kids. I am fallible and occasionally fatalistic while remaining generally optimistic. I see my children as imperfect and yet totally amazing creatures, realistic views, I think. Perhaps the heroic, or at least brave,  moments come when we allow ourselves to see the whole picture of our children and ourselves, the good and the bad, and still continue to try, not letting one overwhelm the other. It’s the balance of lessons from the past and vision for the future, with a huge dose of staying in the crazy, wonderful, terrible moments we are in now.

Homeschooling Solo

Moments like this remind me why we're home. They'd never allow this in school, after all.

Warning:  I’m a bit worn right now.  And whiny.  Every now and then, it happens.

I’m tired.  I’m in my fourth year of homeschooling solo, and it’s exhausting.  After all, the drama of separation and trauma of divorce is nearly two years behind us.  The three of us are clearly, well, the three of us.  The days of seeing five o’clock on the microwave clock and counting down the time until my then-husband would come home and pick up some of the emotional and physical work that goes with raising a family and caring for a home are long past.  I’d not go back to that tumultuous marriage, but I miss the chance to let go a bit each day, to just not be the only adult in the building. Continue reading

Review: The Story of Science (Joy Hakim)

My younger explores pi via a Story of Science quest.

With four years of chronological history behind us, last school year left me wondering what to do next.  My younger son and history buff wasn’t keen on starting the sequence over, and neither was I.  We’d covered a fair amount of American History via his forays into war:  he’s self-studied the American Revolution, Civil War, both World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam.  While the peaceful part of history was reasonable fodder, I remained uninspired.  So I turned to my overloaded book shelves, groaning under the weight of books and curriculum yet unexplored.   Continue reading