Homeschooling in the Digital Age

Screen Shot 2014-03-11 at 4.34.03 PM

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.


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.

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.

Nearing The Half: Curriculum Keepers and Changes

We’re closing in on the end of the semester. My older has finals for two of his courses in two weeks, with the rest of the term ending in three. While we caught a breath at Thanksgiving break, it was not the idyllic week of rest I envisioned. How could it be, with classes going through Tuesday night, past when company arrived? The following five days were a flurry of cooking and eating followed by a few too-short days of respite from a semester that started at the end of July.

Yes, I’m tired. Tired, with a to-do list that grows by the minute, urgency growing on numerous items. I’m longing for more evenings where no one needs to go anywhere and just a few weekends where, “What do you have for homework?” doesn’t escape my lips. Fortunately, a break is coming, and the second semester is set. Here’s what we’ll be doing for Winter 2012

A.D. (15)

Classes at a local university are going well — astonishingly well, given my doubt three months back. My son doesn’t seem as surprised, but he is pleased. Despite a few hiccups and a resulting rapid revision of study habits, he’s pulling good grades in both his Sign Language class (our answer to a foreign language, and the first of four semesters) and Calculus I. He’ll move on to the next in both come January, with more of the series the following semester. I do like predictability and pattern.

He’ll add a third college-level class, PC Troubleshooting and Repair, come January. After building his own computer with a neighbor and fiddling with it endlessly on his own, he’s itching to know more about the innards of those machines. Now, I get antsy at the suggestion of even opening the case of any computer, sure that my mere presence will frighten the workings of the thing into an eternal black screen of death. I’m limited outside the box as well, having a few quick fixes at my fingertips but quickly phoning a more capable friend (or more recently my son) when something goes awry on the screen. While this isn’t a class with credits likely to transfer to a university some day, it could lead to the ability to perform some helpful work around this house and the homes of others. I’m enthused, as is he.

Personal Finance (Dave Ramsey), taken with a handful of friends, continues until early spring. Initially, he was certain this course had nothing to offer him, a sure sign to me that he very much did need some financial education. A few months in, he’s enjoying himself and appreciating the information. (Since I’ve not been watching the lectures, I can’t give a full review of the curriculum. Ramsey is entertaining to watch although overly optimistic about saving rates and investment returns. Watch this series with a post-2007 reality check from a well-grounded adult.)

Piano continues, albeit with a new instructor. I’ve shared our piano woes here before (Piano Lessons), and we’ve learned a good deal about the importance of chemistry between music teacher and student as well as the necessity of teens to set their own musical course. I’m optimistic, as is he. (A full post on music education will follow).

Physics, taught by me to my son and his friend, continues as well. We’ve finished our tour of mechanics and have moved on to sound. Next semester takes us to light, magnetism, electronics, fluids, heat, and quantum physics. I have quite a bit to learn. Our original goal was the SAT Physics Subject Test, but I’ve not looked at where we are on that road in some time. Add that to my very long list.

Ironic as it may be, I’m farming out writing instruction to a tutor. It seems teaching writing to one’s own teen isn’t always effective or desirable. Now, as a source of some of my income, I rely on that fact, but it took me until now to act on it at home. So my older is looking forward to ten assignments spread over 20 weeks, all lead by someone who is Not Mom. I’m smiling, too.

A.B. (11 years old)

My younger son will enter his fifth semester with Online G3, lead by the brave and nearly saintly Jamie Smith. With an assortment of gifted kids in the 8 (or younger) to 13 (or older) age group, he’ll take three classes. Magic Lens/Word Within the Word 2B continues his trip through Michael Clay Thompson’s books by the same name. Aside from adding weekly vocabulary quizzes and reviewing the new stems and words with him, he’s independent in this class. American Literature will round out his Language Arts study, carrying him through Huck Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Red Badge of Courage, and Call of the Wild. The accompanying text is from Lightening Literature, a series with which we’re familiar. Finally, he’ll take Government. He’s been prepping for months, if one considers his immersion into the election and regular (guided) watching of The West Wing. Jamie, beware.

Math will continue as before, with the goal of finishing Discovering Mathematics 1A and 1B (or 7A and 7B, as the new editions are labelled). Well, unless we’re distracted by other math. An interest of trigonometry will return us to Challenge Math after our current chapter in Discovering Mathematics. I’m in favor of side roads on this journey.

Physical Science (CPO Middle School series) continues, and we’re adding a third young person to our studies come January. Overall, the book is serving us well, and we’re progressing through at a reasonable rate with rather impressive retention. I’ll review this more thoroughly a bit later.

New to the schedule will be Latin with The Pericles Group. This is Latin via video game  (practomime), and he’s enthused. I’m interested to see how much he actually learns. It’s recommended for ages 12 and up and requires a good amount motivation and initiative to be worthwhile, says the creator and Latin teacher. My younger son doesn’t lack either, so I’m betting he’ll be fine. When we know more, I’ll report it here.

His Coursera World History class is winding down, and he’s done a fine job keeping up with 750-word essays, challenging readings, and over two hours of lectures a week. We’ve just started a Coursera class on argumentation, and while I’m not sure we’ll take all the quizzes or make it through all the assignments (which walk right through the two weeks when  I don’t want to discuss homework), so far the lectures are interesting and even amusing. The wisdom of placing a naturally argumentative child and his mother into an argumentation class is not open for debate.

Piano and fencing round out his schedule. He’s happy with his piano teacher of the last four years, and he steadily progresses.  He’s also quite satisfied with his with his fencing coach and venue, feeling accepted and challenged. He’s started to enter local tournaments, fencing foil at the  under 12 level. He loves it, and he’s gradually gaining skill.

Those are the plans. We’ll see what really happens. My older son thrives on the greater challenge and demands from his college-level coursework. My younger continues to do well whether I’m in charge or someone else is, although his schedule is heavy on outside courses this semester. Everyone, myself included, is learning. And perhaps just as important, everyone is feeling successful and happy. Sounds like a fine start to second semester.

We Have a Writer: NaNoWriMo

Disclaimer I:  I love and cherish both my sons beyond measure.  They’re entitled to their own interests and preferences, and I respect their choices.  

Disclaimer II: But to have one, for at least a bit, share a passion with me is pure joy.

I’m obscenely delighted. It seems, by nature, nurture, or a freak roll of the dice, that I’m raising a writer. Up until the last six months,  I’ve noticed their interests and mine fail to converge, except when cheesecake is involved.  Over the years, they’ve embraced everything I know little about: astronomy, volcanoes, meteorology, chemistry (okay, I can manage that one, but it’s far from a passion), Pokemon, Minecraft, geography and history (although I learned to love both), and Magic the Gathering.  Both entered this world with pencil allergies, or at least strong aversions to writing. Continue reading

Ready or Not!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning Time: What’s Happening for the Younger (age 10)

After an email request for an update to my “What We Say We’re Doing” page, I decided it was indeed time to figure out what the heck we’re doing come fall.  I have plenty kicking around in my head, but that’s only the start of the real work.  Planning for my 10-year-old is the easier of the two jobs this year, so I’ll start with him.

Math:  Last year, more independent mathematical work was one of my goals.  My younger still has a fair amount of panic about getting problems wrong, so generally he checks in with me after each problem.  This drives me nuts, honestly, and while he’s sometimes willing to forgo that pattern when he’s feeling super-confident, he has a long way to go.  We slowed math down last year when his panic at the word “math” began to mount.  He’s mathematically talented, and I really struggle with his aversion to something he does so well.  We added some of Theoni Pappas‘ work for fun, and Penrose the Cat is a hit.  Anything with a cat is a hit, but I have yet to find the all-cat math curriculum. We’ll continue with Pappas and similar material as we finish up Singapore 6B and Singapore Challenging Word Problems 6, a project that shouldn’t take long.  Upon his request, we’ll work through Pre-Algebra I and II from Life of Fred. (He saw a friend’s copy and thought it looked okay.)I didn’t bother with pre-algebra with my older, heading straight to Jacob’s Algebra after Singapore 6, but this child needs confidence despite his obvious talent, and I hope time and some diversions into other aspects of math provides that.

Science:  We’re all on to Earth Science this year, using CPO Middle School Earth Science for my younger.  It’s an inquiry-based curriculum, which means that questioning comes before vocabulary and scientific thinking trumps rote comprehension questions.  I’m a fan of the inquiry method and excited to try this well-reviewed curriculum.  It’s not designed for homeschoolers, and I’ll try to keep track of changes we make and materials we need so others might benefit later.  We have a bit of Middle School Chemistry to finish still, but hopefully we’ll finish that up this summer.

History:  After a highly successful semester with Online G3‘s History of US 2B (1899 to the present), my younger’s eager to take the rest of her offerings.  First semester, he’ll take the corresponding 1A course, covering the first three books of the History of US series by Joy Hakim.  He’s likely to pick up another in the series come spring.  History is in Headmistress’ Guinevere’s hands. Whew.

Language Arts:  My younger devoured two levels of Michael Clay Thompson’s Grammar and Vocabulary books, so this year he hits the big leagues with Word Within the Word I and Magic Lens I.  As did his brother, he’ll do these with Online G3, but while I left his brother does his own devices and kept my nose (mostly) out of the class, I’ll keep tighter reign on my younger son.  We’ll read the books together, and I plan on more outside work on the vocabulary for him.  I probably should have done the latter with his older brother last year, but it just didn’t happen.  We’re only half-way through Paragraph Town’s 20 lessons, meaning the book has been read but that other activities are left to be done.  At the end of last school year, typing skills sharp from Online G3 classes, he started a blog (Bertram’s Blog).  He’s abandoned it so far this summer, but it’s built his confidence as a writer.  Hopefully, we’ll move into Essay Voyage as the year progresses.  For the fall, he’ll take Lightening Literature 7, again with Online G3.  Can you tell we adore Headmistress Guinevere and her classes?

The Rest:  As a family, we’re trying Rosetta Stone Spanish I in hopes of providing all of us with some exposure to the language before someone takes Spanish in a classroom (likely my older son, who needs two years of it before college).  Karate continues to be our main source of PE, and we may be up for our black belts in March.  Piano study for my younger also continues.  Spelling with Steck-Vaughn materials was a wild success.  Who knew we just needed a traditional old workbook approach for that subject?  He’ll move onto the 5th level this year, and he’s delighted.  Handwriting issues have hit and hit hard. A year and a half of cursive via Handwriting Without Tears has produced many tears and no usable cursive.  His older brother fared no better, so, like his older brother did, we’ll move him back to print and finish out Handwriting Without Tears Can-Do Print.  His printing is far better than his older brother’s who has some serious dysgraphia issues, but it is still a work in progress.  Thankfully, both boys type quite well.

Of course, these plans are all subject to change, but this is one year for one child that I feel I’m looking at plans that could really work. As always, suggestions and “been there, done that” stories are welcome.





Review: Online G3

I’ve balked at reviewing Online G3 publicly.  Not because I have any reservations about it, but simply because it’s a finite resource, and I’m hesitant to see it flooded with users with whom I’d have to compete for spots.  It’s quickly become a family favorite, and I’m feeling a bit selfish.  But share I will.

Online G3 hosts online classes in Language Arts, History, and Critical Thinking for gifted children.  Headmistress Guinevere (aka Jamie Smith) teaches all the courses herself, and, as the parent of a gifted child, she understands the need the younger gifted set need for in-depth, appropriate material to think about and discuss.  She also understands this same set of kids is rarely ready to produce the long papers and projects that older students would be able to do, and her assignments are relatively short but allow for a child who is a prolific “producer” to show his or her stuff.

The online portion of the classes, 50 minutes in length, take place on Elluminate, an online meeting and class host.  Elluminate is easy to use for parents and children alike (okay, easier for my kids than for me, but that’s true with quite a bit of technology in our house), and is Mac and PC friendly.  During the class, Mistress Guinevere has the controls, meaning to speak to the class, kids have to electronically raise their hands and receive permission to use the mic.  Anytime, they can pose questions or give answers on an instant message frame on one side of the screen.  She’s also ready and willing to turn that screen off if conversation there gets distracting or irrelevant.  There are times she “turns on the tools”, allowing students to write an answer or highlight a response on the electronic chalkboard region that takes up most of the screen.  Participation is easy for all students, whether they’re typing skills are emerging or proficient.

Homework is listed on the website after each class, and generally consists of videos on BrainPOP and Discovery Education (which are free subscriptions with each $199 18-week class), quizzes and practice on Quia, book chapters to read at home, and short written or multi-media assignments to turn in on the class forum.  For most of the written (typed) work, the children must also constructively comment on 2 or 3 of their classmates’ work in the forum.  Once assignments are done, they are automatically marked as done on the child’s class page (reading and timeline work is marked by the student), and a complete sign appears when the work is done.  Additionally, there are a dozen or so moderated forums on topics ranging from reading to story writing, to LEGOs, all available for students 24/7.  For the interested child, there is plenty of interaction available, at least for an online class.  The kids are also free to explore other parts of BrainPop and Discovery Learning outside of the assigned videos.

But it’s not the resources that make the classes a favorite, especially for my younger son, now 9.  It’s Headmistress Guenevere herself and the amazing students in her classes. She’s welcoming, informative, interesting, and appropriately challenging, especially for the precocious 7 to 12-year-old children that seem to make up the bulk of her classes.  There are older students enrolled, and a few of her courses specifically are for kids 12 and up, but the content and assignments are the same as those for the under 12 group.  (She had parental requests for classes for the older gang, and my 13-year-old prefers to be with those kids.  He says they are less likely to be distracted and go off topic.  This amuses me greatly, since he’s so often distracted and off topic himself.)  Aside from those courses (and older kids may be in the sessions listed for 12 and under, if necessary), there are no age requirements, and children younger and older participate.

Make no mistake.  This is truly a set of courses designed for the gifted learner.  The pace of the classes is brisk, with many of the courses taking a year of material and fitting it into a semester.  This compression of material is welcome to many gifted learners, who can generally digest information at an amazing rate. Additionally, conversation level is also much higher than what you’d find in an average elementary classroom, and the assignments focus on higher-order thinking skills, like analysis, synthesis, and critical thinking.   In my 9-year-old son’s US History course, a recent assignment asked the students to identify the main reason they thought the US entered World War I (they’d discussed many reasons), if they thought the US should have entered or not, and what the outcome might have been had the US not entered.  The children’s answers were thoughtful and generally well-reasoned, as well as beyond what you’d expect for children largely in the mid-elementary years.   It’s a hit for my budding historian eager to discuss the topic with other historically minded kids.

Over the last two semesters, we’ve experienced five different Online G3 classes.  Three have been combinations of grammar and vocabulary, all relying on Michael Clay Thompson’s books on the same (the writing and poetics portions aren’t included in these online versions).  US History 2B (1900 – 2000)  relies on Joy Hakim’s History of US series, volumes 8,9, and 10.  Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings (reviewed here), requires the LOTR books and a student manual with the same name, published by HomeScholar Books.  Books aren’t included in the course price, but are generally reasonable and are high-quality materials with great resale potential (or, in our house, reusability).

Online G3 isn’t for everyone.  It’s clearly tailored to the young gifted learner who craves a quickly paced class with a virtual classroom with other exceptionally bright, articulate, and opinionated learners.  It’s been a hit with my children, especially my younger, who stalks the site, hoping to find the next week’s homework before the current week’s assignments are due.  If only he had the same drive for math, or perhaps Online G 3 could offer those classes next.  Oh, Headmistress Guinevere…

Review: Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings

Curricula come and go around here, especially language arts curricula. While we’ve enjoyed Michael Clay Thompson’s series for grammar, vocabulary, composition, and poetics, we’ve not settled into a literature program. I was an English major in college and remain prolific reader of fiction and nonfiction. My children, especially my older son, view fiction with a somewhat condescending eye. Why, my older said years back, would you want to read a bunch of lies?

Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings, by Amelia Harper and published by HomeScholar Books, has breathed new life into teaching elements of fiction to my nonfiction-reading boys. At 477 pages, the student guide is initially an imposing tome, but those pages are rich with content centering on a story my boys adore. Each chapter of Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings begins with a summary of the chapter in cloze style (fill in the blanks). A page reference follows each blank, making it easier to find the answer if you’re stuck. The summary that results is quite helpful for those instructors (myself included) who can’t seem to find time to read the book along with the students.

Following the summary is a vocabulary study of five to fifteen or so words in one of two styles, multiple choice or open answer. Each word comes with a page and paragraph reference so the student can read the vocabulary work in context and give the corresponding definition. A glossary in the back of Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings makes for easy reference.  The words are suitably challenging for most middle schoolers, and, I’d venture, the majority of high school students.  Butteries, dromunds, and ironmongery were new to me, and I consider my vocabulary relatively developed. 

The third portion of each chapter study, titled Additional Notes, is a mix of summary, deeper explanation of chapter events (with references to supporting Tolkien writings and commentary by other Tolkien experts), and lessons on literary terms. The explanations are clear with concrete examples. Terms brought up in previous chapters recur in context, generally assuming the student will recall them from their initial presentation.  Simpler terms, such as protagonist, foreshadowing, and theme, accompany more advanced ones, like, aphorism, kenning,  and extended metaphor. 

The chapter work concludes with a handful of questions that generally ask the student to put the literary terms learned into context and a few that ask for critical thinking from the reader. These aren’t simple comprehension questions, as that has been evaluated in the summary portion of the lesson. Some are suitable for essay assignments, as they could be explored in greater depth.

After each “book” (each volume of The Lord of the Rings is divided into two so-called books), curriculum designer Amelia Harper present two to three unit studies that cover literary topics that relate to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s biography, the fantasy genre, epics,  poetry, the Old English lanugage, Beowulf, and King Arthur receive complex treatment in these sections, which can be quite challenging but are truly the distinctive element of this study. These sections make Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings a study unlike any other literature study I’ve seen, bringing Tolkien’s work into a greater context, creating connections to the wider world of literature.

Designed for middle and high school learners, Literary Lessons from Lord of the Rings is intended to be used over the course of a full school year. Jamie Smith, of Online G3, teaches the class in 18 weeks, a brisk pace but pleasing to my older son, age 13. Not every portion of the unit studies are addressed, but I’m impressed by how much she fits in. My younger (age 9), who had to tag along on his now-favorite books, will complete the course after about five months of study (and with more minimal focus on the unit studies). For complete treatment, including time to deeply explore the unit studies, the nine months recommended by the author would likely be required.

As I mentioned initially, this study has breathed new life into literature for my boys. It’s opened the door to fantasy literature in my younger and whetted his appetite for more classics (he adored Beowulf). We do the student guide together, with me reading the Additional Notes aloud, which leads to some discussion of the new terms. We’ve used less of the end-of-unit studies, largely due to his desire to “get on with the book,” but I plan to return to some of the ones we’ve missed after the trilogy itself is finished.

One portion of the program we’ve not used is the tests. Each of the six books concludes with a test of terms, characters, and events, written as true/false, multiple choice, and fill-in-the-blank style. There are separate vocabulary tests for each chapter as well. Aside for math and science for my older son, we don’t bother much with tests, so I can’t review these other than to say they seem fairly comprehensive. The tests are only in the Teacher’s Edition, but even if testing isn’t your plan, I’d recommend buying this along with the student guide, unless you really want to hunt down each answer along the way. I’m grateful I made the additional investment.

I highly recommend Literary Lessons for The Lord of the Rings for any family wanting to use classic fantasy literature to springboard into literary analysis and medieval British literature. If fully utilized with all the end-of-unit studies and some of the writing assignments (essays, research papers, etc) suggested in the teacher’s edition, this can certainly count as a full year of high school English. If you’re looking for a bit less rigor, pick and choose from the end-of-unit studies, as I’ve done with my younger son, and adapt writing assignments into discussion topics, decreasing the output load for younger or writing-resistant students. If your youngster would like to discuss the topics with other students and investigate the ideas in the guide with fascinating web links, consider Jamie’s online version of the class through Online 3G. The class is aimed at gifted children, many pre-teen, and has minimal output requirements. It’s not high-school credit material, but it’s served my 13-year-old well, and Jamie’s a fine teacher.

My only complaint with the Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings is that I’m not sure what should follow it. Here’s to hoping Amelia Harper can bring some other classics to life in similar depth. Thanks to this program, fiction enjoys higher regard from my boys, and for that, I’m grateful.

I’ve received no financial or material incentive from HomeScholar Books or Amelia Harper for this review.