Archive for the ‘Homeschooling’ Category

The Open Door

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The question seemed fairly innocuous, as Free Your Kids posted it on Facebook: if they wanted to, would you let your kids go back to public school?

Sure, I thought. Then, in quick succession no; of course; maybe; if they had a good reason…

It’s really a question with a question beneath it. Do you believe in what you’re doing, as homeschooling parents, so strongly that you’re willing to allow that strength to be tested? I’ve thought about this before, under a broad variety of circumstances and lines of reasoning. They’ll have their questions, and their reasons, at some point or another, and I should probably be ready for a desire to chew gum, pass notes, gawk at the opposite sex, and break out of campus for lunch. How will I react?

I suppose my overarching and unified response to any such requests has to be yes. To say no is to close the door, and closed doors are things that children gaze at longingly, lionizing what must lie on the other side. So yes, the door is open, and my answer is yes…but there are layers within that yes. The first such layer is that, fundamentally, we are all here by choice – because we believe, together, in doing things differently. Once you’ve lost that belief, even temporarily, perhaps you should go – if only to find out what you need to find out about the alternative. Go, I’d have to tell them; have your traditional-school rumspringa. Because you cannot know what a thing is without experiencing it.

Beyond that, though, there are other reasons, and chief among them is a simple one: these are their lives. I’m not going to tell them how they are to be lived. The compendium of experience in our lives is an encyclopedia of opportunities taken, both rightly and wrongly. We generally learn as much from what we do wrong as right, although sometimes the lessons learned are painful ones. I’m living an entirely different life right now had I accepted job offers earlier in my career in Anaheim, or in Houston, or in Exton, Pennsylvania. I have entirely different children and an entirely different house, and I might not even be writing this blog entry. Am I ‘right’ to be where I am now? Were those situations ‘wrong’ in the absolute, or just at the time and place I occupied when I decided against them? Did I consider doors to be open at the time I made those decisions, or closed?

The point being, it’s not possible to live all the lives we might like to lead. I can’t, at the same time, give them a highly traditional, baseball-and-apple-pie trip through junior high and high school, memorizing locker combinations and hoping not to get picked last for kickball, while at the same time trying to provide them with an unstructured environment for student-directed learning. Give them one, and I implicitly remove the other.  Like all such alternate-universe lines of thinking, there’s a version of my kids that I envision being bored to death in public school, taught to hide and blunt their intensities to conform and fit in, flames of curiosity guttering in the winds of assembly-line Common Core learning. I know a bit of that universe, because they spent some time in it, but I don’t know for certain that it continues along those lines through their entire educational experience. Is my love of mathematics innate, for example?  Or was it fired by having the amazing Mr. Neff at just the right eighth-grade juncture in my learning? Or, conversely, did the drizzly rain of half-hearted high school mathematics teachers crush that love down to the point that I did not end up choosing mathematics as a career? I’m the bread of a dozen bakers, some wanting more salt in the dough, others less, some kneading with gusto and others merely executing a chore, and as a result, I can’t be sure of the exact mix of positive and negative public-school learning that made me who I am.

Moreover, I can’t definitively tell them, at any given point, that one is ‘better’ than the other. I have my belief system that, by and large, a more supportive, individualized and empowered learning environment is the way to go.But there were certainly years I was very resistant to traditional learning – seventh grade springs to mind – and in that resistance I often found something else: perhaps it was the company of a similarly-disaffected friend, or the love of an author, or a game, or an activity. Would I have otherwise found those experiences? Perhaps; and perhaps I would have found them in line with another, different learning environment. But I can’t tell you definitively that I would have gotten the same value from ‘directed’ or ’empowered’ learning as I did from ‘resistant’ learning.

Underlying most of homeschooling, then, are two basic question. The first is does homeschooling provide a greater proportion of ‘positive’ learning to ‘negative’ learning? The second – is the value of what is learned positively more important than what is learned negatively? – is a bit more subjective. I believe the answer to both is yes, for any given moment, or in any given area of life. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. But it’s also not mine to own the definition of ‘value,’ and it’s not mine to define for them what is monolithically right. Those answers are theirs to find for themselves, and while I believe I have built an environment conducive to finding them in our home, the world is a big place – and the door is always open.

Walking on the Moon

Moon walking

For a first time in a long time – probably since before preschool – they are happy. They are intensely, exuberantly, singing-at-the-top-of-their-lungs happy.

I don’t know when I first noticed it, but this “school year” is different. Sure, I’m not dragging them out of bed every morning, dropping them off (sullen) at school, then picking them up (even more sullen) to come home, coercing them through homework, and forcing them get to bed and repeat it all over again. No, this ” school year” has been full of discovery, pajamas, projects, plays, singing, strife, emotions, intensity, and happiness. And that just covers the first two hours.

I couldn’t have predicted the complete change in their behavior at this point in the year. We had been part-time homeschooling both girls for the last two years, so I figured we had seen both the benefits and drawbacks of homeschooling gifted kids. I assumed we would see more of the same – content, less-stressed kids with a general love of learning.

What I got, however, was happy.

They are playing in the playroom downstairs, engaged in intricate play between the three of them that involves something along the lines of singing a favorite song, while one of them plays the accompanying keyboard. For H, this means a Police song – she asked for a DVD of a Police concert for Christmas – and she’s singing her rendition of “Walking on the Moon” with the piano. Their music teacher would be proud (and thank goodness she is OK with them doing pop songs for their music lessons.) It’s the type of thing I would have heard them doing at age 3 or 4, but that slowly melted away as they went to school. Once they moved beyond preschool, the monotony of school ground the playfulness out of them, and they came out the other end, as a Pink Floyd face. It happened so slowly, so insidiously, that I barely noticed.

This happiness in my house has made me question everything that I thought I knew. I used to think I understood, without a doubt, the benefits of education, acquiring knowledge, and training for a profession. I knew the right way to study, the right classes to take, the right way to get into school. But thinking about happiness, and what that means to a human life, has made me realize that I have much to learn. How do I guide my kids through an environment that I never knew existed, one so vastly different from my own experiences as a child? How do I focus on their happiness as an end point, not as an unexpected side effect?

How do I teach them to walk on the moon?

Or maybe – and probably – they should teach me. The good news is, I’m never too old to learn, especially from my kids.

I’m heading downstairs to start singing.

The Chair Is Not In the Plan

Hokaido

There’s a fantastic scene in the movie Contact – a surefire crowd-pleaser in any gifted/intense home, by the way – in which the protagonists are assembling an intergalactic travel portal from plans sent out by a much more advanced species. The device is simple, elegant, and beautiful to the eye – but when Jodie Foster comes to examine it, she finds that the design team has added a chair for the traveler’s comfort. Said chair is not, of course, in the plan, and it’s not surprising that when they do fire up the device, it shakes and smokes and shudders…until she pulls out the bolt, and the chair is removed, at which point it works beautifully; it turns out that seating was not really necessary anyway.

I started to feel, somewhere along the line this year, that structured math was the chair we had added to our otherwise beautiful homeschooling equation. Where every other subject we teach – from foreign language to coding to critical reading to world history to science – feels like an environment for exploration and mastery-based learning, structured math is off vibrating in the corner, stuffed with worksheets and Common Core lunacy. So we’re pulling out the bolt, and hoping for a more blissful ride to come.

The reality, we’ve come to realize, is that most structured math curricula have two core faults. First, they assign equal weight to everything, forcing a month of multiplying mixed numbers on us (because THAT’S a crucial math skill to have) while short-changing more important topics like problem-solving strategy development and statistical analysis and data interpretation. Everything’s granted the same stature, and there’s no way to hurry up the check-box skills and stretch out the more critical tasks, because assignments need completing on time. We clearly communicate to our children, through equal-weighting mathematical ‘units,’ that learning to convert tons to ounces or resolving improper fractions is just as important as algebraic problem-solving. It’s not.

Second, math is still focused on computation, in an era when computation is not a skill that is differentiated in the labor market. I’m not receiving any resumes that talk about an applicant’s skill in computation. What I am receiving are resumes that focus on the applicant’s skill in creative mathematical problem solving – a skill I’ve yet to see emphasized in a traditional math program.  All of this goes against what Conrad Wolfram said in his most recent TED Talk, too – the idea that we are falling further and further behind the standard of mathematical capability, simply because computation is easy to teach and easy to grade. Anything beyond computation – teaching actual mathematics – has historically been deemed too time-intensive and personal to be effectively performed in a traditional school setting. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t, but once again, we’re in danger of becoming the infamous drunk looking for his keys under the streetlight – not because his keys might be there, but because the light is better for looking. Is there another way we could pursue a math curriculum designed to emphasize creativity and problem solving while Wolfram’s vision matures?

“What if,” Kathy said to me, “we filtered down the topics to get rid of the computation focus, and then just moved along at the pace of their mastery?”

What if, indeed. Much of math, from grades three through seven, is just churning the same topics over and over again, tacking on a single decimal place to multiplication or adding in the area of one more shape as we go along. It’s not as if there’s an enormous gulf between one grade and the next; I’ve watched H and A tackle the exact same unit, at the exact same time, for the past few years. But we’re rushed from one topic to the next by the demands of the traditional academic calendar, and there’s no room whatsoever for taking a topic that interests them and allowing for a few extra days on it. Nor is there any freedom to dispense with blatantly goofy Common Core effluvia like this and this and this; my kids’ progression through nonsensical bullshit must be documented, worksheet page by worksheet page.

Not any more. While we’re on our way to a computer-based math (CBM) curriculum, we’re going with a combination of Thinkwell and Khan Academy, both of which encourage topic exploration and mastery-based learning rather than traditional-math rubrics handed down from Cold War educational philosophies. We’re going to work with them to sift grade-appropriate topics for meaningful mathematical work and let them work those subjects until they feel comfortable with them – learning driven by the student, not the calendar.

And, hopefully, what we’ll find is that the beauty of mathematics is there for grade-school students to find, too – just as long as we don’t go installing upholstery that doesn’t belong there.

The Letter

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My family set out to get some outdoor exercise this afternoon in our neighborhood park. It was a typical Colorado winter Sunday: sunny, warm at times, and a little windy with snow still on the ground. We found we had the park all to ourselves, which my kids love. Our girls, H and E, started on the tire swing together, while Dave and I played some football with A. We ran around after him, breathing the cold air in the afternoon sun.

It’s these moments that always stand still in my mind. It’s as though we are in a bubble, my family and I, our own little space that only we can enter. Since we started homeschooling, it feels even more this way; each of us revolving like planets around each other, in our own secret solar system. It feels peaceful and wonderful. I try to stop and soak in these moments as they come – trying to slow the earth’s turn while I can, just a little.

Soon afterwards, the girls came running up to me, a letter in hand. They had found it discarded in the park, and brought it to me because they thought it was funny. It was written on notebook paper, in neatly scrolled cursive, with hearts and exclamation points. The letter was from one high school girl to another, outlining the droll details of her day while she was in class. She discussed, in perfect teenage-ese, how she liked one boy better than her boyfriend, her plans to get lunch and smoke pot after her class, and how much she loved her friend. She also stated she felt bad for the teacher, since no one paid attention to him (apparently just not bad enough to stop writing the letter while she was in his class.) We’ve all read, or written, hundreds of letters of this type during our lives.

But my daughters, who are almost 11, had never seen a letter like this one. They asked me, puzzled, if I thought the letter was real, or just a joke – planted by someone in the park to make them laugh. And from their point of view, I could see why they were confused. They can’t imagine someone of their gender actually speaking this way- much less bothering to write it down by hand – or how someone would behave if they were told what to do and where to go all day, every day. For our kids, their time is their own, their thoughts are their own, and their day is their own. Sure, there are house expectations – a dog to be walked, dinner table to be set, laundry to be put away. And there are learning expectations – math, reading, writing, history and science to be explored, and passions to be lost in. Through it all, though, they get to do everything when they would like, and wherever they would like, as long as the work gets done.

So I can see why they viewed this letter as a product of another dimension, or time. And in some ways, it was. Would this girl have written the same letter if she were free to not go to school, to walk out of class, to learn what she wanted to learn, when she wanted to learn it? Would she have been looking forward to smoking pot at lunch if she were excited about working on her passions? Was this letter a product of who she was, or how she spent her time – in apparently mind-numbing boredom?

I can’t say that my kids will never write this letter, or smoke pot at lunch. Right now, my kids are in the magic middle years, where they are wonderful to be around, funny, inquisitive, curious, and snuggly. I know that, despite our unschooling-type approach to homeschooling, they will likely become sullen teenagers in a few years. The teenage years are about individuation and separation – finding your own identity and place in the world. We will support, and love them, as they find their way, and we will be proud of them no matter how they separate from us. It is a necessary part of growing up. I will find some peace, though, in the fact that whatever actions they take, it will be because they wanted to take them, not because they were led to believe that there was only one way to become an adult, with no escape from the day. They will act knowing their thoughts, desires, and passions have value.

After we talked about the letter, the girls asked what I thought they should do with it. I asked them to decide, since they had found it. H and E decided they wanted to keep the letter, mostly because they thought it was funny, but also, I believe, because of the window it offered into another time, an alternate universe, that is not theirs. H folded it neatly and put it in her pocket, and then we continued running around as the sun set against the mountains. Back in our own magical universe.

Pushmi-Pullyu

Pushmi-Pullyu-Story-of-Doctor-Dolittle

Despite Susan Wise Bauer’s advice, I don’t always feel like quitting in November – but I’m glad the month is over, and we’re on to the long, pleasant glideslope into the holidays. It’s not really that quitting comes up as a desirable option, because we’ve got responsibilities to each of them that require our time and effort; I can no more ‘quit’ work or laundry or cooking than I could ‘quit’ homeschooling. But I do often find the need to take a deep breath and remind myself what I’m doing – namely, offering an environment in which skills can be developed and knowledge obtained. Nothing more, nothing less. There’s nothing magical about homeschooling. It’s still an interaction between and among scholars. If there is a difference, it’s that we acknowledge the fundamental nature of learning: while I’m happy to share what I know,  ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the student to learn. I don’t push; you pull.

In a fifteen-year consulting career (and going), I’ve often been told that I’m a good salesman, and I generally take a moment when I get that compliment to deflect it. I’ve never sold a consulting engagement in my life, I like to say. Plenty of clients have bought one from me, but I’ve never sold one. Selling implies some degree of sleight of hand, some aspect of false demand, that I take exception to. I like to think that I’ve gotten clients excited about the prospects that a given engagement or project might have for their business, or the outputs or applications of a quantitative tool or re-engineering process. That’s fine. But in the end, they’ve all bought something they wanted.

Similarly, I don’t think of what I do as teaching. That word is a cousin to selling in that it somehow implies push. I’m all about pull. I’m happy to expose my kids to subjects and concepts and disciplines and skills, but in the end, it is up to them to reach out and take them. I’m equally happy to go on ‘content walkabout’ to find new, interesting things that might fire their imagination. That’s how we found Algebra Touch and Little Bits and Slooh, among a sea of other such tools and technologies and, frankly, cool stuff. I’ll put these things in their path, pull the kids aside to talk about them, sit down with them to run through something once. I’m looking, frankly, for spark, because spark is the beginning of pull.

But I don’t push. Because there’s a day when there’s no one to push, except themselves, and what then? Sure, in one sense, I hope they’ve learned to push themselves, because there are moments that you do need to push yourself: reaching a personal savings goal, or lowering your golf score, or leaving the last slice of Lou Malnati’s alone. But that’s a very Tiger Mom-ish perspective, and not all of life works on push. The larger things, the important things, will be done with pull. In a larger sense, I hope they learn to pull themselves – to keep identifying the activities and concepts and hobbies and careers that incite passion in them.

Part of the challenge is that there’s still a part of them that is waiting to be pushed to, waiting for education to happen, and I have to remind them that this is an environment for skill development and knowledge acquisition. Want some? Get some. Want more? Get more. Want nothing? Get nothing, most likely – or get what you keep by sheer luck or happy accident. If I allowed myself to become offended, or get to the point of wanting to quit, based on their consumption, I’d be in a lot of trouble. I don’t. I’m in the business of fomenting pull. I’m a pull provocateur – not a push pimp.

But yes, I’ll be re-reading this post again in February, probably when I feel myself starting to push again.

Turkey, Interrupted

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I’d be hard pressed to tell you what year it is in our family room right now.

My wife is seated on a couch we purchased in 2005, piecing together a thousand-piece Christmas jigsaw puzzle based on a painting from 1958. My daughter is reading a book published in 1980 on a Kindle Paperwhite from 2012. I’m writing this on a 2013 laptop straight from the Dell box, a long-overdue tech refresh, while listening to music from the Montpelier Codex, a 13th-century book of vocal music, on an album released in 1994 and available to me through 2012 tech Spotify.

Oh, and by the way: we’re doing all of this in the wake of putting another cultural touchstone to the test, because none of us can stand turkey.

“Are you grateful for turkey?” I asked them this year. Heads shake in mute dissent. “Then why don’t we eat something we’re grateful for?”

“I thought we were supposed to eat turkey for Thanksgiving.”

“We’re not. We’re supposed to be grateful. If tryptophan stimulates your gratitude synapses, great. Otherwise, why don’t we come up with a meal featuring foods that do trigger those synapses? Why don’t we eat something we can chew and taste and swallow with a smile?” The resulting table did not look much like a Norman Rockwell print, but we were grateful for the food we ate, for the time we spent together cooking and baking it, and the fact that we focused the holiday on the mindset, rather than the meal.

This is the sort of thing that begins to happen with more regularity when you start homeschooling full time: everything falls under the lens of re-examination, and not all of it emerges on the other side. The way it’s always been done ceases to have a great deal of meaning when you’re forging entire curricula anew. Their scholarly time begins to migrate from the compliant – I need to finish multiplying these mixed numbers, Dad! – to the critical: when do I use this? What problems are relevant for this theorem? Is there a better way? And along the way, we discover – often, together – that the status quo is just bullshit. We are, in many ways, like the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlamp – not because that’s where we dropped them,  but because the light is better there.

Now, I hesitate to teach them that all that has gone before them is bullshit, because that tends toward a certain cultural nihilism that leaves them with a blank (and bleak) page to fill in on their own. But I also find myself with a responsibility to let them question the status quo and make their own decisions, and so with that in mind, we went in search of whether we were discarding a deep and historically relevant tradition, or another made-up Hallmark holiday. They’re always deeply disturbed to find out how recent all of this modern American culture is, and to be honest, so am I. Thanksgiving as a concept is an old holiday, dating to 1863, but it has only been since 1939 that the holiday has been celebrated in anything like its modern form, and only since 1947 that turkey became the gustatory meme of the season.  Nor did the Pilgrims likely eat turkey as the centerpiece of the meal; that would have been venison, courtesy of the Wampanoag (who were not, in fact, invited to dine with the Pilgrims, but simply happened by and felt bad that such a large number of people were eating eels and radishes and parsnips and liverwort). So we’re neither celebrating the original eely, parsnip-y Thanksgiving, nor are we honoring any sort of centuries-old tradition, either. But doesn’t it feel that way?

Weirder yet, most of our major holidays have comparatively recent scaffolding to them, at least in their secular forms. Santa in his current jolly red-and-white form dates to about 1906 (not the 1930 Coca-Cola myth, but not a great deal earlier, either.) Trick-or-treating only became a national holiday convention in the late 1940s, having begun in the Western U.S. and Canada and then stalled in its eastward expansion by wartime sugar rationing. What our kids tend to think of as timeless staples of holiday activity were relatively new to my own parents, and by the time I came along, many had been in place only for a few decades.

Weird, isn’t it? But these and other ‘givens,’ I teach them, are anything but. Credit cards in their current form were first issued in 1958. Automobile leasing – now considered just one among many acquisition options – was unheard of prior to the prime lending rate reaching 21.5% in December of 1980. Modern consumer advertising had its origins with the growth of television and suburban commuter populations in the late 1950s (and we’ve watched it grow up, in infinity-lens fashion, through Mad Men.) We tend to treat virtually anything that existed prior to our birth as belonging to a timeless, eternal continuum, but in reality, our own parents saw customs, goods, services, and cultural tropes born during their own lifetimes. So have we, and it seems normal to us, but to my children, life before the Internet must have been unthinkably primitive and bizarre.

From literature to mathematics to civics to science, we teach a common mantra: take from what has been done before, but never accept it as a flawless and unassailable brushed-steel given. In our house, we tend to borrow the best and question the rest, much like the crazy quilt of centuries in my living room right now. ‘Because we’ve always done it that way’ is a wobbly, worm-eaten plank at best – and we’ve found it to make fine firewood, the better to finish a jigsaw puzzle by.

Killer Bs

I forget, every year, that we’re going to have to go over the concept of grades. A was no different this year; he’s often brought me work with the same eager question that H and E had for the first few months of their own homeschooling: “what do I get?”

I’ve answered him, honestly, as I’ve answered all of them so far: I have no idea. It’s not done yet.

I don’t exist in a world of grades. Most professionals I work with don’t, either. There is one grade – suitable – and the potential for compliments that live above the line of pure actionability. Solutions can be elegant, or quick to the point, or cleverly designed to perform under budget, but those are frosting terms, sprinkle terms, atop the concept of suitable.  The hurdle for workability varies by functional area and by project; some work most definitely needs to correspond to an academic A-plus, and other work simply needs doing at a C level. (No pun intended.) Moreover, picking the wrong execution level is a sin in its own right, so taking an extra week or ten days to do something at an A level that needed C work isn’t just a quality surplus; it’s a different kind of mistake. It’s not only important to be able to trade quality for speed of execution, it’s important to be able to correctly read the circumstances that demand each.

What A provided me wasn’t workable – not yet, anyway (he was close) – so off he went to make it workable. I also informed him that he was on the hook for the work he would have started if what he’d turned in had been workable the first time through. That’s life’s C-minus: you get to do it again, while you’re taking care of everything else that needs doing. The machine neither grinds to a stop while you rework your mistakes, nor does it shrug and move along the next task with this one still undone to spec. But that’s the school system, in which the most dangerous grade possible – a B – somehow lets students move along without ever mastering the concept. (No wonder school districts are slowly beginning to insist on mastery.)

It’s new to him, just as it was new to E and H prior, and there have been teary moments when work piled up, but they slowly, gradually, came to understand how it worked. Then the other questions started coming. What kind of evaluation spec will this assignment be on? What are the evaluation criteria going to be? How long do I have to do it? How long before deadline will you look at work in progress?

Grades, as they are currently constituted, are bullshit, and don’t do a thing to prepare kids for the life that exists for them beyond the walls of academia. Even venerated institutions like our college testing system can’t actually tell a kid whether he or she can write anything meaningful or compelling.  Even graduating from college doesn’t necessarily mean anything anymore, as employers both here and abroad complain that staggering numbers of graduates – half, by consensus – aren’t ready for real-world work. How bad is it? We’re now seriously talking about having a post-graduation test to determine if graduates learned anything.

So we’re starting over with the concept. In here, tests and essays and projects aren’t due by the calendar; they’re due by when our kids feel they’re ready to tackle work at that level with the confidence of skill mastery in hand. They’ve got responsibilities to get that mastery done on a reasonably timely basis, and we’re happy to excuse them from secondary responsibilities that are less important. (I’d rather have my kids spend twice as long on the reasons for the rise of the Maurya Empire than the dates it fell between.) But ultimately, we’re moving in a direction that’s more goal-oriented than grade-oriented, and that goal is ability (as we’ve discussed previously).

We’re also increasingly aware that there’s just more to education than can really be measured by a single number or letter at a single point in time.  As such, we’re much more about concepts like cross-disciplinary application and skill re-acquisition, so we carefully watch their ability to apply what they’ve learned creatively in a variety of learning settings than simply cramming and dumping knowledge sequentially (kind of what this kid is doing). We’re looking, long-term, to see if concepts like the rise of the state show up in critical reading, or whether knowledge of geometry shows up in entrepreneurial work. We’re also watching to see how quickly they can re-learn lost skills; that’s going to be important over time, too.

In the end, I hope I’m readying them for the world they’re going to live in, one in which a series of unsuitable work deliveries (that came oh-so-close) are just greasing the skids toward the inevitable exit interview, and blowing the quality peak off of a midweight project is just costing everyone time for other work. Bs and Cs where As are needed, and As where Bs and Cs will do, are among the many and complex forms of error their world will challenge them with. They’ll need to be ready for both.