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. 

 

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

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

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

Choosing curriculum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.

 

The Beginning of the End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Changes of State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Homeschooling in the Digital Age

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

“Time to get off the computer.”

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

This is homeschooling in the digital age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Strings Attached

018Birth is the start of a separation that most mothers long for, as gravid bellies grow beyond all believed limits and small hands, feet, head, and even pointy elbows poke the most intimate parts of their host. Nothing, for the pregnant woman, is done alone, and all that mom does during those 40 weeks is done with two beings in mind. But at the end, those weeks before birth, most moms are ready for the change to come, if only to experience less trips to the bathroom and to stop pushing that foot out from under her ribs. The first-time mom learns quickly that birth just changes rather than severs the connection.

Sure, squeeze-induced bathroom trips decrease in frequency after that first separation, but for the next oh-so-many years, they are rarely the private venture they used to be. And while babies out of the womb can be passed to another set of loving arms or even set down for at least a bit, they are persistently vocal about their preference, even when all the available arms full of groceries, in the shower, or holding onto someone else. And while we moms don’t do it with grace every time, we accept that our separation at birth was only the cutting of a single strand of connection. It was only the beginning.

And so it goes. That cord-cutting starts a cascade tiny separations. Weaning. Walking. Talking. Eating and toileting and dressing and bathing — with less and less assistance. Reading. Writing. Exploring the world and their place in it. Finding their own voice and learning to use it to show how separate they are from their parents and siblings. And all the time running away and coming back, more on elastic bands than string, with the furthest runs out followed by crashes back into the safety of a parent.

It’s not a linear process, and it’s often unclear when a given separation occurs. The child who spends weeks working solo suddenly wants mom by her side for math — every day. The boy who was saying goodnight to mom with little more than a quick and squirmy hug suddenly needs stories and conversations between the stuffed animals that returned to his bed after years of absence. No wonder it’s easy to be confused and conflicted about when and where and how to let go.

My older son is sixteen. He is a bit more man than boy everyday. I’ve not tucked him into bed in years, as his sleep cycle sends him to bed hours after my eyes close. He’s driving on a permit, taking college classes, and shaving (occasionally), and he spends much of his day in his office, a corner of the basement where interruptions are fewer and where, I guess, he feels more his own person. He’s working on the organizational skills required by college classes and the high school variety, a process that reminds me of whiplash. For days on end, all cylinders seem to be firing. Each time I check on him, he’s working on schedule or making adjustments as needed. I start to loosen my hold to the string that seems attached to his frontal lobe. I might even set it down for a bit.

And then it’s mayhem. Deadlines are missed. Assignments remain undone or not turned in. Test grades plummet. Alarms go unheeded. Chores are abandoned midway. 

And so I pick up the string, tie it around my wrist and pull. Hard. The resulting unpleasant collision of mother and son makes for all sort of ugly exchanges. I’m disappointed that he couldn’t maintain the organization needed for his life. I’m frustrated that I’m again his frontal lobe, which leaves me a bit short-handed for my own life. And I’m scared that he’ll not be able to manage just a few years down the road when I’m not so close to grab the string.

It’s that last part that’s the key. Separating is scary. Not separating is scary, too. As with the rest of parenting, there is no guidebook about when to let go. If my experiences are any indicator, there aren’t any clear rules. Strings are rarely cut outright or even set down with forethought and intention. Often, parent and child just set them down, either worn out from holding Most just slowly dissolve out disuse by both parent and child after some time on the ground, . It’s hard to see what separations have occurred without stepping back a good deal and seeing where you haven’t been in years. I’ve not tied his shoes in almost a decade. I don’t recall when last I cut his food, coaxed to shower, or thought twice about wondering if a household chore was within his ability set.

As he’s grown, we’ve formed other attachments, the sort where I need his assistance or occasions, those borne out of common interest. I’ve long turned to him for computer problems and other technical challenges, and he’s now the one who manages what’s up high and too heavy. There’s a comfort in this pattern of give and take, each of us with skills that help the other, an interdependence that feels somewhat similar to my relationships with other adults in my life. Somewhat.  He is still — and always be — my son. Strings attached.

Wrestling With Authority

Every day, I tell my kids what to do. Get in the shower. Pick up your dishes/clothes/books/shoes. Remember your English homework. Get ready for bed. Many of those requests begin with a “please,” but let’s face it. For most of us, “Please brush your teeth,” isn’t offering choice but rather a veneer of manners we hope helps our children that there are polite ways to tell someone what needs to be done when. “I’d appreciate it if you’d pick your dirty clothes up off the floor and put them in the hamper so they can be washed,” is just a sanitized, “Pick up your clothes.” It’s not an invitation to debate or discussion, and both child and parent know it.

But that’s not the kind of parenting I prefer. In the parenting world in my mind, we all do what we should because, well, we just should. We pick up our things and put them away because it is then easier to find them later. We do our respective jobs because they are simply our jobs to do or because they make our life as family better. We all brush our teeth because that’s good for our teeth. I pay the bills because it keeps the heat on and the keys to the house in our hands. We all take up the tasks of keeping that house intact, each to ability and time of life. And we never run out of ice cream or dark chocolate because that’s just not how we roll.

Yes, I have a rich fantasy life. It sustains me when I’m again reminding children to finish math, pick up socks, and place their own dishes in the dishwasher. I’ve pleaded my case for collaborative living and personal responsibility on numerous occasions, often being met with blank stares or, sometimes from my older, a ducked head, indicating a bit of remorse but no real idea what his crazy mom is requesting.

I’ve been known to struggle with authority. Not with appropriate authority — the kind that is given with respect, but not just the verbal trappings of respect. “Please” means nothing if paired with a useless, unreasonable, or impossible request. Where I’ve struggled with authority is where the authority is simply there for the sake of being authority. Authority should have purpose, and a person with authority should have wisdom and vision that those following the authority do not. 

Parents, theoretically, have that wisdom and vision. We are the first authority in our children’s lives, and most of feel ill-equipped as we wield use it. If we’re thinking as we parent, we wonder daily about when to exert authority and when to let go. Aside from the obvious health, safety, and legal points, knowing when to hold fast and when to let a child lead is largely a matter of opinion swayed by our own upbringing and our peers.  We’re charged with keeping our children alive until eighteen when, theoretically, they’ve gathered the knowledge and vision to move into the world with less parental prodding. How we interpret the vagaries of that job is up to us.

When I look back, the authority issues those first few years were simple, revolving around sleep, safety, and nutrition. The sleep issues bogged me down. My children weren’t big on naps. One just needed far less sleep that it seems a small child should, and one just found leaving mom’s moving arms too risky to chance. But I needed their naps. As an introverted mom, finding time to recharge alone was a priority for my own mental health. At many a nap time, I wondered who needed the naps more, me or the small child. But while you can lead a child to bed (or other comfy nap spot), you cannot make a child sleep. Not one to let my child cry it out for purpose or principle, I did what many moms do. I took to the car. Ah. Quiet for me. Rest for the little one.

Authority issues expanded as they grew. I found myself locked in ridiculous power struggles, which any thinking person would recognize as unmistakable signs of authority gone awry. Debating clothing color choices with a four-year-old is a sign of insanity, and yet, I found myself explaining the lifetime woe my older would experience if his idea of matching was to wear a red shirt with an almost-red pair of pants. Yes, I learned. Clothing — and hair length — aren’t areas where my wisdom or vision help one whit. I learned a bit about when to let go.

As the boys grew, I continued sometimes to explode into unneeded authority tantrums, bids for power, really, which is the not-so-virtuous cousin of authority. I say with minimal embarrassment that one pleasure I take in my professional life as a physician assistant is that people actually at least pretend to listen to my wisdom. Yeah, I know they don’t all go home to exercise, eat more fruits and vegetables, and quit smoking, but they often say they will. Shallow? Perhaps. But some days, I just want some recognition that have wisdom and vision in something.

Homeschooling added another arena for the authority question to flourish and, in some ways, raised the stakes to the authority game. While I live in a state with no reporting and no regulation, I have always been acutely aware of the level of responsibility I have educating my sons. What to teach, how to teach it, when to start and stop, how to assure their competence — how to decide what competence means — and much more is firmly in my hands. It’s daunting. Heck, it’s often overwhelming. As my older reaches the end of high school, it’s no less daunting to count credits and wonder where to balance his passions with what he’s not so passionate about. And it’s daunting to know when to let him lead and when to exert authority about his schedule.

So where’s the line? I don’t know. I think it’s different for every parent and every moment in time. While I appreciate the adage that a parent is the one who best knows his or her own child, it’s not that comforting when the parent knows perfectly well that skills ignored today are going to still be required in college in a few years. And just as I’d have been remiss for failing to remind my children at four to brush their teeth or to give another child a chance at the swings, I’d be equally remiss if I did not insist on balance to their education. Computer programming is not a sufficient curriculum for my older. He must learn to read with comprehension and write in a way that transmits information and is readable. My younger must ingest more than literature and history — some math and science are necessary for a well-rounded education.

Of course authority extends beyond academics when parenting older children. Curfew is just as much about respecting the needs of the rest of the family and your obligations the next day as it is drawing a line of “late enough”. Talking back, while mostly just annoying at home, is the possible precursor to disrespect to professors, bosses, and partners in years to come. And nothing about parenting teens excludes reminders about basic hygiene.

So I continue to wrestle with appropriate authority. I wonder when to let a child walk away from an activity and when to insist he try at least a few more months. I ponder whether to legislate bedtimes and waking times for those who find themselves with too few hours in a day for homework. I wrestle with choice — how much to give about coursework and free-time choices. All the while, I yearn to step down from the role of authoritarian, or at least to step back into a more supportive and collaborative role. It’s work, figuring out how to let children grow up and finding your place as they continually grow and change. It’s hard work, the sort that haunt a mom in the night, wondering to which side she’s erred the previous day. It leaves me wanting an authority of my own, an instruction manual, specific for each age and stage of my children.

But there’s nothing, of course. So I make my own way, blundering daily, stepping on their toes one moment and letting them wander too far the next, always wondering if they’ll be ready when it’s their time to leave the proverbial nest.  Wondering what they’ll think once firmly ensconced in their adulthood about the level of authority they experienced at home. Wondering and just wanting them to be okay.

Chip Clip Ed: A Curriculum My Children Need

I opened the pantry this morning for “a little something” as Winnie the Pooh would say. As I dug through our snack shelf, searching for the almonds I’d clipped shut last night, I ran across a bag of pretzels, or should I say a bag that once held more than six stale pretzels, with a chip clip mid bag, holding on by its corner to one side of the bag only. It appeared to be there for ornamentation only. Oh, where to begin?

My children are smart — brilliant at times. They talked early and prolifically, mused about life and death and the meaning of both before kindergarten, fell deeply into subjects like Ancient Roman history and meteorology before the lost their first baby teeth, and generally show all the signs of being smart cookies. They can — and do — vacuum, dust, and sweep. Alas, it seems the more mundane practical life skills — the chip clip variety of skills — correlate poorly with high scores on IQ and achievement tests. As I enroll my older in advanced computer programming classes while musing on my younger’s need for more rigorous writing curriculum, I wonder how these children will survive in the world, or at least how they’ll ever have cereal that isn’t soggy before the milk hits it.

Here’s what I want: classes to teach them the basics of surviving and even thriving in the world. It’s a simple enough request, isn’t it? And should they partner later in life, it seems important that they master a few basic skills. Here’s what I want for them:

How to Keep Good Food From Going Bad:  After an opening exercise of rummaging through the back of the pantry for lonely chip clips and empty bags, beginners will attend sessions such as  “How to Use a Chip Clip” and “Folding Bags Within Boxes: It’s Not Just for Cereal.” Advanced topics would include “Matching Container Size to Leftovers,” “Successful Zipping of Food Bags,” and “Proper Storage of Unfinished Liquids.” Prerequisites: Ability to use a chip clip without self-injury. Or not. They seem to learn quickly.

Exploring the Concept of Empty: The concept of zero challenged great thinkers until about 2500 years ago, so it’s not surprising kids struggle with the practical aspect of zero: the empty container. Enroll now for sessions such as “When the Dredge of Milk Isn’t Even Enough for Mom’s Coffee,” “The Last Three Mini Wheats: An Early Morning Conundrum,” and “Depression and Anger: The Consequences of Disappointment When Picking Up the Empty Box”.

Beyond Empty: Remove, Recycle, Replace: Now that they can identify empty and the consequences of the concept, students in this advanced class learn about choosing the appropriate waste disposal method and replacement of key items, like toilet paper and tissue boxes. Extra credit is given for alerting the family procurer of items out of stock. Lecture titles include “Toilet Paper Planning: Saving Embarrassment and Maintaining Privacy,” “From Cupboard to Bin: Preparing Materials for Recycling,” and the ever-popular, “Empty Boxes Don’t Refill: A Study of the Replacement Process.”

Laundry Myths and Facts: No, there is no laundry fairy. Convince your child with stimulating and sense-intense topics like “Balled Socks and Jeans with Inside Out Legs Don’t Come Clean,” “Finders Keepers: Laundry as and Entrepreneurial Endeavor,” and “Washed Gum and Crayons Affect Us All.” Advanced students may move onto “Putting it Away” (syllabus below)

Putting it Away– Socks, Spoons, and More: Taught in the individual’s home, this course will show your child just where everything goes. This course covers everything, from  laundry (“Drawer or Hamper? How to Discern Where That Garment Goes”) to dishes (“Look Before You Load: Are Those Dishes Clean?” and the more advanced “Cupboards and Drawers: A Place for Everything”).  Special attention will be paid to returning chip clips to their proper place after use.  An interactive session on using hangers and closing drawers is included.

Where is It?: Children often lose what is in sight. This course addresses both ends of lost items — looking effectively and putting things where they belong. Attention to personal property is the focus in this follow-up to “Putting it Away.” Schoolwork, musical instruments, sports equipment, and other items are addressed in the session “Yes, There’s A Place for It.” For what does not get put away properly, we offer, “I Have to Look the Same Way You Do,” a course emphasizing the personal responsibility of the one who lost the item. “Search Strategies: Standing in the Middle of the Room is Not Searching” addresses challenging issues, such as  the last place one had the item, actually looking under that heap of papers on the table, and searching for more than 30 seconds before panicking.

Watercloset Wisdom: Does your child leave the bathroom a scene akin to the aftermath of a Category 5 hurricane? Do you need a Hazmat suit to enter? Whether you share a bathroom with your offspring or not, this course can help. “When Toothpaste Escapes” focuses on management of the tube, from cap replacement to sink (or floor) wiping for accidents. “Towel and Washcloth Management: Only You Can Prevent Mold and Mildew” and ” Close the Curtain Tight!” are public health and safety classes included in the curriculum. Boys may attend an additional session on apparatus control, seat placement, and flushing. Repeat attendees welcome.

I sense I’m not alone. Many of you are also raising smart kids who have difficulty applying mathematical, scientific, and psychological concepts to daily life despite (and I bet you keep checking, too) amazingly high test scores. That same child who can rescue you from your latest computer crash CAN learn to recycle the empty granola bar box. It just takes the right curriculum.