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.


Executive Function Skills: Job One

Google can only provide so much. For example, no matter how you rearrange key words, searches on the order of “how do I help my gifted kid with a bunch of ADD get through the day with something done correctly and without ruining our relationship or stripping him of much-needed independence” yield no useful information. I don’t need to get my child off the refrigerator, but I do need to find a way through what are becoming more and more discouraging, tear filled days.  He’s miserable, too. Continue reading

Ready or Not!

In Michigan, public schools start the day after Labor Day.  It’s a tourism issue, encouraging folks to travel the state for the last weekend of summer, and many private schools start weeks earlier, allowing longer breaks mid year and an earlier end date.  Since a later start and an early finish sound good to me (heck, who learns anything in school in June?), we start after Labor Day and end around Memorial Day, with a few loose ends that we promise to each other to finish in the summer but generally don’t.  So, according to my calendar, we’re less than two weeks from Day 1, and I’ve been planning their work and our end-of-summer activities with that timeline in mind.  Aside from an online class starting this week and three more starting next week, all which I only realized yesterday (What?  The online homeschooling teacher in California doesn’t follow the Michigan public school schedule?) , all is on target.

Kind of.  I have severe pre-homeschooling school year jitters.  Severely severe.  Insomnia producing, anxious cuticle picking, crabby-when-spoken-to jitters.

I don’t usually feel this way.  Generally, I’m excited about our start.  Returning to routine generally soothes me.  This year, the thought of fall just gives me the heebie jeebies.  This summer, while packed with fun stuff like Stunt Camp, SUUSI, good times with friends, and trips to see grandparents, was just too busy.  My younger son with Asperger’s does not transition well, and busy trips away followed by quiet time at home really throws him off.  Heck, I don’t transition well.  Every week has been different this summer, with no semblance of routine at all.  Somehow this summer, we forgot to relax, or perhaps we did that in the first half, and the effects have worn off already.

It’s more than that.  Last year was far from stellar.  Both boys were plagued with executive function challenges, with my older revealing how much he really needs assistance with planning and scheduling and my younger struggling with compliance and anxiety (he’s poor at the compliance and good at the anxiety).  All around, I was glad to see that year behind us.  But the question of how to make this year better all around continues to plague me.  I’ve involved them when planning solutions to those problems, although I’m not sure this will actually change our outcome, as their insight to the problems of last year is a bit foggy given their difficulties with (here’s the refrain) executive function.

My younger wants a schedule that gives the times he’s to do things.  His main concern with a simple to-do list is that he won’t get it all done and be able to do what he wants to do.  Never mind that Mom is pretty good at knowing how long assignments should take for her kids.  Never mind that the day is long and his homeschooling day, if he stayed on task, would be fairly short.  I’ve agreed to give this a try, but I can smell the anxiety in the air when his schedule says math at 9 am and he’s still finishing spelling at 9:05.  This is not a flexible child.  As I said, I’ll try his way, but I have my reservations.

My older wants a daily task list.  As I posted last school year, he and I have tried a variety of planners on paper and the computer with no success for more than a day or two.  Last year, we ended up using the low-tech white board.  I don’t object to the whiteboard, but he took to erasing items that were only partially done, which hampered his ability to remember to finish them later.  Also, I did all the list making, and I think, at 14 and technically 9th grade, he should be learning to keep track of his life just a bit more than that system allowed.  I’m again playing with planners for the iTouch, but I’m still not impressed.  I’ve started using Opus Domini on the Mac, which is the simplest interface for scheduling I’ve yet to find, but that’s yet to be released for the iTouch or iPad, and I have no idea if it will work for him.  Since little of what works for me works for him, I’m keeping my enthusiasm in check.  Whether we schedule on paper, white board, or computer, I’ll be looking for ways to gradually turn the reins over to him.

My planning is another bugaboo this fall.  I’m designing a course for my older son on Earth Science and Meteorology (the latter to a greater depth than a general college level Earth Science class would go, since he’s been studying the subject independently since he was six).  In addition to science, I’ll incorporate history, literature, and composition into the course with and underlying focus on note taking and study skills.  Whew.  He’s quite interested in how weather and geologic events have affected history, so we’ll focus on the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the Little Ice Age, famine and drought across the ages, and more, while learning how to write an academic paper.  I’m enthused but cautious.  Last year, we dropped so much, somewhat due to my giving him more responsibility than he was ready to take and somewhat due to Life Circumstances Beyond Our Control.  Life has settled, and I’m returning him to my side for more of his learning until he has the skills to be more successful on his own.  Still, I’m worried.  Have I put in enough material?  Have I put in too much?  How do I teach study skills when I never remember learning them?  When am I going to find the time to read all these books at the same time he does?  I could go on,  but I’m sure you get the idea.

I have less planning concerns about my younger’s studies, since his three online classes this fall limit my planning to science, composition, math, spelling, and handwriting.  After we tie up a few loose ends for Chemistry, he’ll start Earth Science, too.  I’ve done little to plan for that yet, but the course is clearer there, given we’re using a standard text with labs and all.  I’ll flesh it out with videos, current events, and other readings, but the big work is done by the textbook folks.  Somehow, I continue to feel anxious, but most of that focuses around his compliance issues.

Ready or not, our school year is fast approaching.  While we don’t have the rush to find new clothes and hunt down a long list of school supplies all while filling out the mounds of paperwork that go with sending a child to an actual school, we have our own angst as the school year starts.  And despite my worries, each time a store clerk or stranger says, “Hey, at least they go back to school soon,” I smile, grateful that we’re doing that at home.

Happy new homeschool school year, for all those who see September as a beginning.  I’d love to hear from you about your concerns or joys about your new starts, whether they are in fall or some other time.

Following Directions

My version is shorter.

Follow the directions.

Simple, huh?  Apparently not.  My older child, who has a good-sized dollop of ADHD/inattentive type and more than a smidge of 13-year-old grumpiness, can’t seem to do this.  Yes, I know executive functions like planning are affected by ADHD.  And I’m painfully aware that no medication exists that helps with that particular ADHD challenge.  And I know that following the directions is, at least according to my older, boring.  But still, it seems like NOT following them only should have to bite you so many times in the derriere to make direction-following preferable to assignment-repeating. 

But that’s not so.  This homeschooling year has challenged him more than he cares to be challenged (and I’m not sure that right now he wants to be challenged at all).  His work load is heavier but certainly doable.  I’ve already blogged about planning and organization and this child, so I’ll not belabor those issues, except to say we’ve seen no improvement on that front.  And direction following issues aren’t new for him, but with three on-line courses where I’m not making the assignments, it’s essential to learn to do on his own.  It’s just not happening, however, and I’m getting grayer by the day.

As I see it, following directions takes a few simple steps:

  1. Awareness:  The realization that there is a specific plan for the process in question.  I’m all for creativity and independent thought, but much angst in this house goes toward concerns that the task is in completely uncharted territory.  Go easy on yourself.  You may not have to start from scratch.
  2. Realizing Relevance:  The understanding that the directions matter.  Hey, they may even tell you what the outcome of your work should be.  So many times, I read a paragraph, essay, or chemistry set answer and note to the child that the directions were not followed.  The child may have created a gorgeous essay on the essence of the Hobbit mind, but if the assignment was to compare and contrast Merry and Pippin of Lord of the Rings, the desired result isn’t there.  So back to the drawing board he goes.
  3. Taking Time to Read:  Okay, this might seem like a no-brainer, especially if you’re aware the directions exist and realize that they are intended to be followed by you, but (unless you’re a mom, dad, or have people under you at work), this step is not to be taken lightly.  No skimming for the main idea here, please.  If the question asks for the average number of cups of coffee in a week it takes your sleep-deprived mom to sustain consciousness at the wheel, please don’t give me the total number of cups.  Read carefully enough to answer the question.
  4. Just Do It!:  Again, this isn’t the time for creative process to bloom (unless the directions tell you to think creatively).  Don’t answer the question you wish you were asked; don’t omit the parts of the trig problem that you simply don’t like;  just answer what you’re asked.  More is fine.  Less is not.
  5. Take Time to Read (again):  Yeah, this is #3 again.  But really.  Take the time to check if you answered the question asked.  It’s a bold step, because if you followed your wishes instead of the directions (or if you really didn’t read them at all at all), you’re apt to find you’ve wasted time and need to return to the top of the list.  You may be angry with yourself.  You might even wail and gnash your teeth, a common response to failure to follow directions in biblical times.  But lest a plague of locusts or boils occur to you (or worse yet, and irate mom repeat herself ad infinitum that directions are there for a reason), read the directions again and confirm that you followed them.
  6. Ask questions:  Really.  Teachers say that all the time.  So do homeschooling parents.  We’re home, in part, to customize education for our kids.  I want you to ask me questions.  Granted, I may reply with every kids’ least favorite response, “Did you read the directions?”  If you didn’t, return to step #1 with a succinct acknowledgement of your inattention to that detail and get to work.  If you did, ask away.  That’s why I’m here.  That’s why we’re home.

Faced with my personal shortened version of  “Following Directions for Dummies,” I’m wondering how well I follow those steps myself.  As a knitter, I am often faced with directions.  Some projects require only innovation, but tricky stuff, like knitting socks, requires quite a bit of attention to directions, at least until the hang of that toe, heel, and cuff are firmly in mind.  I’ve knit two pair of socks recently, and I’ve followed loads of directions.  Or at least parts of loads of directions.  I found a toe-up, two-at-a-time, magic loop socks pattern I though would work for me (Yeah, I fish for the directions I like.).  I knew I needed a pattern, having never made socks, realized they’d be useful and existed, kinda read them, didn’t like the way they did the heel, looked for an easier way to turn the heel, read a dozen more directions (kinda), found a YouTube video I could follow, knit the darn heel, and never reread any of the directions.  Perhaps that’s not model direction following, but I ended up with socks.  Not the socks in the picture, but…  Hmmm.  Let’s try another example.

Faced with too many apples and a fine butternut squash, I googled squash soup and scoured my cookbooks for ideas.  Meanwhile, I roasted the gargantuan squash, turning it to a scoopable, delectable mass.  I finally winnowed the recipes down to two, my usual number for any cooking endeavor.   I ignored the ingredients I don’t have or don’t want to use, pulled down what I want to use, and plowed in.   Much apple and onion chopping later, I came to the detail of the squash preparation.  Cube the squash.  Really?  They really can’t mean that, I decide, looking at the definitely un-cubeable roasted bowl of yellow I’ve scooped.  I checked the other recipe, which seems to have made the same mistake as the first:  who would want to cube this hard-to-cut beast?  So I shifted gears, cook the mass of ingredients I’d decided were relevant, roasted mush included.  An hour and a whirl with the  food processor later (gotta break up those apples, after all), I had a delicious soup.  Not the soup in the recipe, but who cares?  I didn’t.  It was delicious, directions be damned.

Hmm.  Perhaps I don’t model the best of direction following, at least not in those domains.  And, I’ll admit, improvisation can lead to beautiful results.  And while I wouldn’t compare my efforts at cooking and knitting to the masters of the art world, it’s not like Rembrandt painted by numbers.  Creativity and direction-abandoning have their place, and I’m happy to illustrate that flexibility to my kids.  However,  I’ll also point out that, in the end, I had a pair of socks in the desired size and a meal that was quite tasty.  While they’re likely to disagree on the second count, squash not being in their food repertoires, I think there is a difference.  I can improvise because I’ve followed many directions in the past for knitting and cooking.  I know where I can make changes and still come out with the right product.

Alas, many of the situations they face now and in the next many years, at least academically, demand attention and adherence to directions as written.  They may not find the process of following them particularly fun, exciting, or creative, but there are many times when it just must be done.   Say I suck the joy out of life:  you’d not be the first or second to do so.  When I calculate a dose of medication for a patient, adjust the blade on the reel mower, or assemble yet another bookcase from IKEA, following directions increases my chances of aiding the sick, keeping my fingers attached to my hands, and preventing a book avalanche that could crush a child. 

But when I’m knitting a sock, cooking a stew, making a Halloween costume, or even soothing a tantruming child, creativity and intuition can reign.  For these and many other tasks, the directions (if they exist) are but a launching pad.   Knowing the difference seems to be the challenge, at least for my older, and it’s making him miserable most days.   While I’ve not formally presented him with my version of “Following Directions for Really Smart Kids with ADHD,” I’ve given him snippets many times when he presents problems that could clearly be solved by (join the chorus) following the directions.  Perhaps tomorrow…