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.

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.” 


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.



Review: One Year Adventure Novel

One Year Adventure Novel (OYAN) , a year-long high school level course on how to write a novel, caught my eye when my younger son, then ten, was gleefully working his way through his first NaNoWriMo. He’d started that process on a bit of a whim, and despite having only written one short story before that November, he completed a quite readable story of over 10,000 words. (For the details of our experience, read this.) He’d been bitten by the fiction writing bug, so naturally, I searched for more avenues to learn about that style of writing. I visited the OYAN homepage several times over the next two years, but the price was off-putting. (Full price, it is $200 and, per the website, not to be resold, although doing so seems to only bar purchaser of the used material access to the website forums and the ability to purchase additional workbooks.)  I wasn’t sure I wanted to make a formal study of this personal passion. But last semester, a parent of a writing student of mine wanted her daughter to give it a try. My excuse to purchase had presented itself, and I agreed, excited to try it out with an eager, exceptionally bright fiction writer.

OYAN, a DVD and text-based program,  is designed to be used over a school year of 36 weeks.  The Compass, a textbook of 78  short chapters including excerpts from novels, gives the meat of the lesson. Each chapter is just a few pages, periodically including a few pages of text from an adventure classic with a few questions for the student to answer. The DVD lecture is nearly identical to the textbook, meaning the curriculum supports auditory and visual learners. Some lectures include well-chosen movie excerpts to illustrate a particular point, but many are simply explanations of what is in the text.  Ranging from six to about fifteen minutes, the lectures are easy to fit into even a busy schedule. At the end of the last DVD are student quizzes, designed to give weekly, other adventure novels, and other extras.

Daniel Schwabauer, the author of the text and the lecturer on the DVDs, is thorough and generally interesting, first covering minutiae about every element of first the main character then the supporting characters. Plot receives similar attention, with nine chapters dedicated to outlining each chapter in great detail. It’s only in Chapter 40 that the writing begins, along with discussions of dialogue, narration, a variety of literary devices, and  a smattering of other topics about writing. Revision receives four chapters, a seemingly paltry amount given how much time it generally takes and the importance it has, an importance acknowledged by the author but given short shrift in the schedule. Getting the first draft done seems to be the main goal.

The Map is the accompanying workbook, and it consists of forty chapters (the workbook stops when the writing begins),  starting with discussions of theme, conflict, and protagonist, leading to character sketches, and ending with detailed chapter outlines. The student who completes those forty chapters will have a clear template for writing his or her book. Some of these questions are quite challenging, reaching beyond the text, especially in the first half of the workbook, when the student may have little idea of what will happen in his or her book. This intense focus on sometimes abstract novel characteristics can be frustrating to the writer who just wants to tell a story. Discussions of theme and the necessity of meaning are repeated, with an emphasis that this is to be a novel of depth rather than a fun read. Again, given this is likely often the first substantial writing project in a student’s experience, this can be overwhelming. A fun, cohesive read with a strong plot and well-developed characters would be likely a more appropriate goal.

The Prisoner of Zenda (an adventure novel by Anthony Hope) rounds out the student portion of the curriculum, and reading assignments about that novel with occasional question sets occur throughout the textbook. While this makes for slow reading of a short book, the readings are timed to match planning techniques. The Teacher’s Guide, a thin volume, contains guidelines for parents and teachers as they evaluate their students as well as answers to weekly quizzes. The course is designed to be completed solo aside from parental evaluations, leading the appropriately light amount of information in this book. (We did not use any of the 78 short answer quizzes, so I can’t speak to their usefulness. I suppose they would provide another criteria for granting a grade for the class, if that were desired.)

Disclosure point: My student and I made it only as far as Chapter 18. Mostly, we stopped because my student was bored and frustrated. Faced with thirteen weeks of not writing, she was losing enthusiasm for what she wanted to do — write her novel. She, like many gifted learners, is a whole-to-parts thinker. OYAN is the ultimate parts-to-whole curriculum. She was, therefore, rather miserable. She’d quickly created character sheets, and after the first week or two, we’d discussed her character’s goals and fears to the point of irritation. (Yes, I was bored, too.)

It’s not that I don’t see the point of planning. I’ve seen students start stories with enthusiasm only to reach a point where they didn’t know where to go next. These stories without a climax were initially wonderful, with compelling characters and well-planned settings, but they simply fail to reach satisfying endings. After a few such episodes, I insisted on a few planning basics: Know your setting, characters, plot, and climax with resolution before you start writing.  OYAN takes this several steps further, insisting on intricate planning before a word of the actual novel is written. Major points of focus in the first six weeks are theme and meaning, subjects that OYAN states are what make a novel worthwhile rather than just an entertaining read.

This is where my student got stuck. Me, too. Here was a bright, capable writer who’d discovered the essence of the story she wanted to tell. But what would be the greater message? She was stymied, and I was convinced it didn’t really matter whether she had a theme or message. We both simply wanted a story. Had she wanted to go on, I’d have walked with her, but as mentioned previously, this curriculum is best for a parts-to-whole thinker, particularly the meticulous type, and she was neither.

The issue of message also bothered me on another level. I’d done my homework. This is a curriculum claiming to have a biblical worldview. On principle and because of poor fit for us, I generally avoid these titles. Most tend to be, at best, simply dismissive of other belief systems and usually far worse. I knew that OYAN’s Chapter 18 contained language that belittled nonbelievers, but I’d also heard that was the worst of it, easily discussed with a student and let go. Given my student was not my own child, I planned to forgo the discussion, which worked well, as we had plenty of other matters to discuss.  The video, however, shook me up. Reading his words in the text had not prepared me for hearing his vitriol toward (and poor understanding of) secular humanists. After he misrepresents agnostics and atheists, he backtracks, saying and writing that meaning doesn’t have to come from religion. I can see no purpose to this rant of his other than to wave the flag of his beliefs while denigrating those who find meaning in something other than supernatural.

But even without this disturbing chapter, OYAN wasn’t for us: Not for my student, and not for me, and likely not for my novel-writing son. It has a good deal to offer for the student wanting a fiction writing curriculum with structure, a bottom-up approach, with plenty of examples of technique from a range of classics. It provides parents with plenty of points of evaluation, something that matters more to some homeschooling families than others. It also offers online support via forums for students and parents. Still, it’s expensive for what it offers, and given that purchasers of previously used copies (a company no-no, but not illegal) cannot simply buy a new workbook to go along with the durable materials.

So what is my novel-writing student using now? A free (for the pdf version), high school level workbook from NaNoWriMo. Elementary and middle school versions are also available, as are sets of lesson plans designed for classroom use. I’ve yet to check out the plans, but I can say that the workbooks are far more to-the-point than the OYAN curriculum, and that’s what she needs.

Seventh Grade: Plans for 2013/2014

School is underway for my seventh grader (whatever that means when you homeschool), now twelve. As I write, he’s working on math, and once that’s done, he needs to spend time on a project for an online class. Our early start wasn’t my choosing, but since his online classes started last week and he does better when occupied, here we are.

Math (mean, median, and mode today) picks up where we left off in the Spring. Rabbit trails, anxiety, and a textbook switch means he’s still a few chapters short of finishing Singapore’s Discovering Mathematics 7B (Common Core edition).This seriesweaves algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and miscellaneous math topics across four years of texts, meaning that we’re likely trapped in this series of four books until we see our way to the other side. That’s fine, Singapore has served us well for many years, and we’re both happy while he’s learning.

Biology is our science this semester, and I’m thrilled. I’ve spent weeks reworking the high school level biology course I used for his brother and a friend when they were technically in  seventh grade. (Syllabus here.) Centered around Exploring the Way Life Works (Hoagland) and Biology: Concepts and Connections (Campbell), this is a rigorous study with plenty of labs, reading, and writing, as well as explicit teaching of note taking skills.We have two weeks before our first class, and I can’t wait.

Much of my twelve year old’s learning is online this semester. He’s taking two classes from Online G3, an impressively taught source of real-time classes for younger learners ready for big ideas and dialogue. He’ll take Current Events, where a portion of each session is in the hands of a student who takes fifteen minutes to present on an event he or she finds interesting. (My younger son is taking on Common Core and presents next week. That should be interesting.) Also from G3, he’s studying Shakespeare’s Comedies, a high school level literature course using Lightening Literature’s text by the same name. For second semester, he’s hoping to take Shakespeare’s Tragedies and perhaps British Literature. My children couldn’t be more different.

New this year is Latin. We played with Latin in the spring, using Linney’s Getting Started with Latin, which provided a gentle introduction to the language. He’s enrolled in Lone Pine Classical School’s Latin 100, an intense course requiring strong study skills. What he does not have now he’ll hopefully develop along the way without too much drama or trauma for either one of us. He’s also plotting his language learning course, debating the benefits of four years of one language then two of another versus two years each of three different language. That’s my child. Planning years ahead when there is absolutely no need.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month — write a novel in a month) will keep him busy come November, although he’s not decided on a word count goal. He’s participated two other years, with a published book coming out of his first experience. While I love his dedication to the project and accompanying word goal (25,000 this year, he says), it does take a good-sized chunk out of each day. Our only flexible point this semester is math, so we’ll likely take a break from that for November. He’s not complaining.

Social skills are my hidden agenda for him. Asperger’s doesn’t go away with age, and he’s struggling more again as he approaches his teens. There is more to miss, more subtext, and more to feel anxious about. We’ve not had an easy time, and I’ll admit that homeschooling has buffered us from not just the perils he’d face at school but  also made me a bit complacent about his lagging social skills. He has good friends who accept him as is. I’m grateful. But he needs some assistance in the everyday sorts of relations: small talk, meeting new people, even emailing a friend. So we’ll be hitting these harder at home and enrolling in a live class for homeschooling  middle-schoolers, Jury Trial. He adores the topic, and I’m glad to have him try some of those skills in a live classroom. We’ll see how it goes.

His extracurriculars remain the same: fencing with Salle d’Etroit  and piano with a private instructor. He makes slow but steady process in both. Neither come naturally to him, and I’m some mix of pleased and surprised that he’s not daunted by that. As he says, he’s not sure where his body is in space. He simply can’t feel it, and both endeavors are far easier for those who have access to that internal wisdom. I hold my breath when he struggles over and over with each, hoping he’ll stick with it despite the struggles. That can be hard for gifted folks. When so much comes so easily, persevering in what doesn’t (fencing, piano, social skills), takes a good deal of sense of self outside of one’s natural intelligence. I admire his persistence.

Reading through our plans, I realize my role is gradually shifting from teacher to facilitator. This didn’t happen with my older son until tenth grade, when he started dual enrollment courses and a few online classes. I can’t say I mind, since my younger definitely does well learning online, and the options for that mode of learning expand by the day, but it does remind me that we are closer to the end of our homeschooling journey, which started nine and a half years back, than the beginning. As I somewhat reluctantly look at our schedules and the waning days of August, I find that a bit of a relief.

Eleventh Grade: Plans for 2013/14

This is late. School has started, and I’m still putting my fingers in my ears and humming, “It’s still summer,” which really doesn’t help me prepare for what is upon me. My younger son, now twelve and theoretically in 7th grade, started one of his online classes yesterday, with another starting in a few days. Handwriting (his request) and math (my request) are also somewhat on the schedule. And my older son, sixteen and on track to graduate in 2015 never really stopped for the summer, completing a few programming courses and an electronics course while occasionally servicing computers. But it’s August. Late August. And that means it must be time to post some sort of schedule for the fall.

A.D. (16, 11th grade, dual enrolled)

With a transcript written and rewritten and a few colleges visited (Oberlin College and the University of Detroit Mercy), I’m seeing the homeschooling finish line for my older son. At this writing, he’s decided to study electrical and computer engineering, and given his dedication to both this summer, I have little doubt that dream will turn reality. He’s spent the summer dismantling speakers, amplifiers, computers, and more, learning Python and HTML on his own, and walking through an electronics course, all largely on his own. I’m not sure I recognize him, this rapidly maturing young man who once smitten with a topic absorbs it endlessly. It’s been years since I’ve seen this drive and passion in him, and it’s the first I’ve seen it take root this deeply. I’m both gratified and relieved.

So some of his fall with extend his current independent study. He’ll take C++ (a programming language) at a local community college. I’ve a few hesitations, as this is so-called Open Entry/Open Exit course, which allows one to start and finish the class at one’s own speed, albeit within a 15 week window. My older isn’t known for planning and organization, and it will take discipline to follow through. If this weren’t a subject he loves, I’d likely guide him elsewhere, but with his current drive, I think he’ll be fine. (See the crossed fingers?)

He’ll also continue to Calculus III at a local University where he’s studied before. The class will be small with only a handful of students, one other dual enrolled, with a teacher he now knows well. I’d not say he’s excited, as Calculus has provided a good deal of challenge in the study department as well as offering a fair amount of homework, but he does want to complete the Calculus cycle this year. In the spring, Differential Equations will finish the cycle, a point he’d be pleased to reach.

We’ve returned to Biology for science, although via a somewhat less formal study than he pursued in 7th grade. (See the page on top, HS Biology, for that curriculum.) He’ll use Plato High School Biology, along with a Campbell text, but the meat of the course comes from the  MAKE lab book, All Lab, No Lecture Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments (Thompson and Thompson). We can’t get enough of MAKE’s lab books, and I’m pleased with the looks of this one. I have a weak spot in the budget for science supplies, and I’m a sucker for meaningful and REAL labs. I’m excited, and he is interested.

For English, which is not his favorite subject, he’ll start with a Toastmaster’s class (public speaking) with a local homeschooling co-op and a literature class of sorts from Coursera — Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative. Okay, that’s not terribly traditional literature study, but I’m coming to embrace my computer/engineering teen and realize that deep literary analysis isn’t likely going to play much role in his future other than convincing him that good literature is torture. I don’t want that. We’ll also continue to work on writing in a way that has yet to be determined. Two more credits of English, I remind him. Two.

History is a bit vague and will likely be an exploration of the history of science and technology. (See what I’m doing there? Yep. Making it palatable and relevant. Why did it take me so long?) No, I don’t have a syllabus yet, although I did stick a reading list somewhere. Yes, I know we’re only two weeks from starting our formal school year. Eek!

Along with the formal curriculum, he’ll have time for tinkering and programming, the stuff that makes him the happiest. He’ll continue to repair computers for those in need, including our own machines. Sadly, he’s decided that after a decade of study, he no longer wants to study piano. I’ve hopes that he’ll plant himself at the piano for pleasure, but a few months after his last lesson, he’s yet to play a note. I’m struggling with his decision, having made the same one at the same age, but it seems to be the right one for him. Oh. He’s taking physical education, also at the co-op. Hey, a kid has to get out the basement and move sometime, right?


Summer at Sixteen

It’s summer. Not the calendar kind but rather the school kind. Well, my younger son is finishing three Online G3 courses while my older strolls through the ends of a writing course, but it’s mostly summer.

Summer vacation once meant a break from school entirely. Aside from problems from the Math Can, weekly piano lessons, and plenty of time for reading, summer meant no planning for Mom or regular work for the boys. But last summer, we decided to move some of my older son’s study to summer, freeing up some time in the fall for the college coursework he had planned. He started a Coursera literature class towards the end of July. I started teaching Physics at the start of August, partly as security against the inevitable illnesses that would interrupt our study and partly hope that we’d finish before May. (We did.) Thus summer as free and light ended and some form of year-round homeschooling began.

Summer remains simpler than the school year, at least a bit. For my newly sixteen-year-old son, it offers a chance to focus on a few subjects, some  passions and some despised necessities, but without the distraction of five or six other areas of study. By age, he’s a high school junior. He has 19 college credits from the past year, although acquiring more isn’t the agenda this summer.  For the next three and a half months, he’ll focus on a few carefully chosen subjects, along with the usual piano study, balancing what he needs with what he wants. I like to think of it is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. He may have a different analogy.

For the remainder of May, he’ll study for the SAT subject tests in Physics and Math Level 2.  It turns out Calculus 1 and 2 don’t help you recall the vagaries of trigonometry identities, probability  and matrices, so those are receiving the bulk of his time. Physics is fresher and going well on practice exams, so less work is required there. Why bother with the standardized tests? Because some colleges like proof of mastery, plus studying for exams is a skill that could use some practice. Plus, as many homeschooling parents know, no matter how much we feel we’re getting this homeschooling right, a bit of outside evidence doesn’t hurt.

My older will also start driver’s ed, albeit with much anxiety from both of us. He’s not that eager to drive. I’m eager to have another driver, but I’m not so excited about it being from that tiny, helpless baby that slept in my arms sixteen years back. Growing up is hard on moms. He’ll also finish a programming course in Python through Computer Science Circles (University of Waterloo). He’s resisted programming for years, figuring like foreign languages that it was not accessible to his brain. For once Mom was right. It’s different from a foreign language and is now a preferred activity of the day, done first each morning. And after Python, he’ll move on to another language, possibly Java, although through what route of study remains to be seen. He sees it as fun, making just about any route effective.

With a friend and fellow electronics nut, my older son will work his way through Make: Electronics (Charles Platt), an instructional electronics book with plenty of photos and fun. (The first of 36 projects is to lick a battery.) From there, they move on to building progressively more complicated circuits, exploring transistors, logic chips, magnetism, and a host of electronic wonders I don’t understand. To document the work done, the boys will make a series of YouTube videos of their projects. He’d been dabbling informally for much of the past year, and formalizing the study encourages him to fill in holes, complete projects, and allows me to issue some credit for the amazing amount of learning that went on when I turned my back.

The “medicine” end of summer includes finishing an online writing course. With two assignments remaining, this shouldn’t take long, but somehow writing is always his last priority. After that, we’re moving to a literature study of a hopefully appealing kind: Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative, a Coursera offering. It’s not his mother’s literature class, but he’s a very different learner than his mother, so that makes sense. In my most optimistic mode, I’m picturing adding a history/English hybrid, with readings about scientists, mathematicians, and the history of science and technology. While I initially wanted to start that this summer, I’m becoming overwhelmed with the list of confirmed summer study, so perhaps that will wait for fall.

On top of his studies, my older has started repairing computers (PCs) for others. He received certification (TestOut PC Pro) by exam after completing a PC Troubleshooting and Repair class at a local community college. While this isn’t likely to produce steady work, it’s something he enjoys and does well. We’ve discussed communication with clients, turn-around time, rates, and other business practices, and are hoping for the best.

As I read through his plans for summer, I’m awed. He’s come so far in the last year, a time when I was frankly hoping he was reaching the bottom of the teen slump, since I couldn’t imagine him dipping any lower. Clearly, he’s on his way up and out. Along the way, he’s found his passions — computers and electronics. His passions match his skill-set, and he knows he’d like to pursue computer and electrical engineering in the years to come. I’m relieved. He seems to still find plenty of time for Minecraft, sleeping, and goofing around, top activities in his niche in the teen boy culture. And he still seems to like his family, at least most of the time. At sixteen, that’s a fine sign for our summer together.