A Letter from the Counselor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



We Have a Transcript!

This week, I registered my homeschooling high schooler at a local university for fall classes: Calculus I and Sign Language and Society. Those choices reflect the peaks and valleys of my older’s homeschooling over the years. His strong mathematical ability was a substantial part of what brought him home to learn and an arena in which he’s always thrived. He’s more than ready for Calculus come fall. His decision to take American Sign Language to fulfill the foreign language requirement of many colleges is a response to his struggles with first Latin and then Spanish. Some mix of poor language-learning genes (my contribution), dysgraphia, and lagging study skills have made foreign language acquisition quite painful and unrewarding. ASL, we hope, will mesh better with his strengths.

But this moment is more than a move toward his future and a return to classroom learning. This event means I finally created his transcript.

For a host of rather neurotic reasons mixed with avoidance and sloth, I’ve obsessed about creating a transcript for him since he started seventh grade but done nothing. What should go on it? What shouldn’t? How should I structure it? Should I give him grades? How should it be organized? Over and over, I’d search out templates or create my own only to freeze when actually attempting to fill one in.

For dual enrollment, however, he needed a transcript. Nothing elaborate, assured the admissions officer, only something to show the Calculus teacher he belonged in that class. Thus charged with a specific task and imminent deadline, I set to work. A few days before our meeting with Admissions, an email group’s discussion serendipitously turned to transcript creation. I exchanged emails with a few kind, patient women who had done what I wished to do: create a transcript with no “mommy grades” that still relayed the depth and breadth of my older son’s work. Reassurance that these transcripts could be used effectively in the college acceptance game that lays in our not-too-distant future relaxed me. One parent even sent me a portion of her daughter’s transcript (a daughter accepted at a selective university), which was very similar to what I’d begun. I started to breathe with more ease as I polished my work.

So what did I do? On the first page, I listed his courses by subject and given each a number of credits based on Carnegie Units (120 hours = 1 credit).  After seven months of worrying that we hadn’t done enough, I was delighted to see so much had actually been accomplished. This process took a bit of shuffling, since most of reading and writing experience was scattered through his other studies. His research papers were written on psychology subjects, and due to my initial design of his Earth Science studies, much of his literature/nonfiction reading work was of a scientific bent. After some sorting and reorganizing, I found he’d indeed completed a year of composition and literature while still maintaining enough hours to list Psychology and Earth Science separately. More work had been accomplished than I’d originally thought.

The following page and a half gave a brief description of each class, including the resources he’d used and the method of evaluating his learning. If he took tests (math only), I mentioned that. If a course was largely based on discussion, debate, analysis, and conversation, I indicated that. Where formal papers and essays were required, I indicated such. I don’t know if anyone will bother much with those brief descriptions, but creating them assured me he was learning in many areas of study. Whew.

Aside from his ACT scores, however, his transcript lacks grades or scores. All the templates I’d found, all the advice on the websites and books, furnished a prominent spot for a GPA. I don’t have any idea how to objectively grade my child at home. We work for mastery, meaning we don’t stop learning material simply because the test or assignment has come and gone. Most of the time, we stay with a topic until it’s well understood. Otherwise, what’s the point? After all, homeschooling is largely about getting a carefully tailored education. It’s about learning (and numerous intangibles that don’t make it onto transcripts). All the transcript samples I’ve seen from friends and online sources are filled with ‘A’s. Hopefully, the ‘A’ means a child has worked to mastery on a subject. But since that’s not what an ‘A’ means from a school, a parent-given ‘A’ gives the reader little with which to compare the student to others.

Sure, grades might work for math. Test scores divided by the number of tests equals a grade. Except it doesn’t. In school, homework counts. So does participation, writing one’s name and date in the correct corner, and turning in work on time. Grading other subjects is, in my opinion a subjective pile of quicksand. I’ve never given an essay or set short essay-type questions a numerical or letter grade, and I don’t plan to start now. No, escaping grades and the stress they induce was a big part of the draw of homeschooling. We homeschool to learn. Period.

And that’s what I think (and hope) his transcript reflects. Once I freed myself from concocting grades, I could relax and just describe what we did. Will anyone read those descriptions? I don’t know. They were reassuring to me that work had been accomplished. Living in a state with no paperwork requirements for homeschoolers encouraged my laxity in record-keeping, and producing a transcript forced me to find the underlying order of our last year.  It also reassured me he’s done a good deal more learning than I’d thought. I came away from the process confident he is well-prepared for the journey ahead. What’s more important, he felt the same while reading it through. We’ve had a rough year for many reasons, and both often felt like we were in a deep educational valley,  but this document assured my son as well that he’d accomplished a significant amount of learning. That well-earned confidence is truly a peak of our homeschooling year.