Thursday, June 19, 2008

Curricula, Unit Studies, and Syllabi! Oh, My!

It's that time of year again.

I got the letter from the school board today - although a response isn't due until August 15th. The letter requests that I verify my credentials, my daughter's progress, and - most importantly - submit my curriculum for next year.

There is no autopilot setting for homeschool education. You don't get a report card passing your child up the line to the next grade and then focus on reservations for summer camp.


This is the time when homeschooling parents are scouring the internet for the best deals and most appropriate approaches for teaching our kids. Decisions have to be made in the next couple of months: where, how, and with what will we be educating our children? We have to think about content, too. How closely will we follow a set curriculum? How much will we supplement? Where are we going to get the money for all this?

These are the questions that come in late spring and early summer, along with the "for sale" notices on the materials we used last year.

It's one huge, educational swap meet!

So, what are the options?

There is "school in a box." Complete sets of materials, heavy on the computer work and on worksheets. These are often organized along traditional content area classes and focus on mastering reading, writing, and arithmetic in the early grades.

Then there are the looser, more flexible curricula that are designed to facilitate tailoring to the child's needs. While these still tend to center on the traditional content classes, they also work at integrating them. Boundaries blur and skills are applied across the curriculum.

Then there are unit studies. Themes are used to explore a variety of skills. Planning an imaginary trip out to California in a covered wagon can involve math, science, art, history, and literature.

Finally there is the choice to "unschool." Teaching as topics come up, and as the child shows interest. The parent acts as a facilitator, resource, guide, and cheerleader rather than as a traditional teacher.

Which approach is best for you? Most likely it will be a combination.Certainly, I've used elements of all of them this year.

I'm going to be looking at each of them in a bit more depth over the next few postings as I look to how we will be structuring our homeschool time next year. The Girl's self motivation will have to be encouraged as it is likely that I will be working nearly full time and it will be Grandma taking her to the library and looking over the first drafts of her papers.

Who said we get a break for summer?

Oh, right - NO ONE.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Uncomfortably Justified

So, The Girl took a released standards of learning test yesterday. Even as I handed it to her, I felt like a bit of a hypocrite. Wasn't the whole over-testing thing part of why we're homeschooling?

Still, I reasoned with myself, she had not spent the last three months taking practice tests; she hadn't spent last night not sleeping due to test anxiety; and - most importantly - she knew the test was not a reflection on her as a person. Her biggest concern about the test was that if she took it seriously and did her best then we'd go for ice cream later - and if she passed, she'd get a sundae.

It was a game, and I was okay with that.

So she took the test. She took it seriously. She asked me a couple of questions on the wording of some of the problems - which I answered. She took it at her own pace, got up for drinks or the bathroom whenever she wanted, and took her time.

She got missed only one question out of 35, which translates into a score of 593 out of 600.

Which was really, really cool, and kind of left me feeling relieved and satisfied. I now had a number that I could give to people who expressed their concern over our homeschooling. (These are often the same people who are concerned about kids growing up in a single-parent family and being an only child.)

And of course that thought left me uncomfortable. Why should I need a number? Why shouldn't I just shrug and ignore concerns?

Probably I should, but for this year I have a number, and The Girl has ice cream - she got the better deal, but I'm okay with that.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Standardized Testing and Homeschooling

We are at the end of the school year. Of course, as discussed in my last post, The Girl will be homeschooling in a couple of specific topics over the summer, but the general academic homeschool year is over.

Sometime before August, I have to provide proof of adequate progress to the school board, and this brings up one simple and inescapable fact: school boards like standardized tests.

They really like them.

A portfolio assessment is an option, but our school board has never done one, and offers no suggestions as to HOW to do one. They offer several acceptable choices for standardized testing, however.

On the one hand, I feel that I've spent all year growing away from these arbitrary measures of memorized facts and the interpretation of trick questions. It's one of the reasons we homeschool, and it feels a bit fraudulent to go back to them now.

On the other hand, as a single mother who is going to be forced to take on more work next year, rather than less, I feel the need to keep our hand in with these tests. After all, The Girl may have to re-enter the school system at some point, and good test scores will smooth the way.

I know this is true because every one of my teacher friends that I have discussed this with gets a looke of relief on their faces as soon as I tell them I am planning on having The Girl test this summer, and not only that, but we are practicing for the test by taking our state standards released tests for fourth grade. This is generally seen as a very smart move on my part, as a way of making sure The Girl is on a level with other fourth graders in our schools.

Still, part of me is disappointed that we have to test at all. After all, I work in the system, I know how arbitrary the tests are. I know that we don't really know what we are measuring with them more than half the time. I know that the scores off of any of the tests that I give her will provide only the tiniest sliver of insight into what she has actually accomplished this year.

And yet, we will be testing.

Not because I feel it will tell me anything I don't already know, but because it prepares The Girl for the day that she has to go back to being a cog in the academic machine, just like I am preparing to go back to full time work, and be a cog in the employment machine.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Year-round schooling?

It is interesting to me that I find the idea of the summer off from school to be much less appealing than it has been in the past - and I don't just mean because I am not the student anymore. When The Girl was in public school I craved the freedom from homework and worksheets just as much as she did, but this summer is different.

The Girl is looking forward to this idea of "no school" just as much as she ever has. Yet, she discusses the fact that she is going to start her Japanese studies this month, as well as sign up for community art classes, as if this weren't studying.

I think that she is still in a public school mindset, so I haven't pointed out to her that she is, in fact, opting for year round schooling. She would be outraged at the "loss" of her free time.

The thing is, she is choosing what to study. She's had some say in her studies all year, but for summer, she really gets free rein. This leads me to think that the fun of summer isn't so much the free time, as the freedom of choice - something that we get year-round with homeschooling!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Teaching the Logical Argument

The Girl hates to write. She especially despises re-writing. She doesn't particularly think it is necessary. The fact that "learn" is spelled three different ways through the course of a paper seems to hold no horrors for her.

I begged to disagree.

It puzzles me. I think on the whole, I just don't get it, because I have always loved to write. The word on the page has been magic for me since "Hop on Pop" by Dr. Seuss, and I have trouble understanding why my child, my own flesh and blood, does not share this wonder.

For those of you who face similar challenges, we have to get used to it. We have to find better reasons for learning to write than, "because writing is important."

Yes, writing is important, but that isn't going to convince my fourth grader that she should re-write.

My recommendation, should you face such a situation - whether in writing, science, or math - is find a motivation that does work with your child.

The Girl loves to win an argument. She likes to be heard and be convincing. She loves to debate.

(Oh, Lord. I'm raising a lawyer.)

Re-writing became important, when I had her write a book report about why a particular character in a book would make a good best friend, and she lost the argument based on the fact that I couldn't read what she'd written. I made no allowances. I didn't permit myself to guess what she meant. I told her that if a point wasn't written in the paper in an understandable way, then it couldn't be considered.

Amazingly the paper was taken back, re-writing was done (moans and complaints continued, but were ignored). This repeated itself - bring up paper, Mama reads, Mama points out what she can't understand, The Girl complains of persecution and goes back to re-write - until she had me convinced that, yes, Sam Beaver would make a better friend than Louis than Swan.

Not a particularly vital argument, but one she really wanted to win. Which was all that mattered, since it was all that got her to do the re-writing the book report needed.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Not Dead Yet

I found something out about myself. I can juggle about four things successfully. Add that fifth ball and I start dropping things.

This year, life just kept throwing extra balls at me, and so my online life got almost completely dropped as I worked on keeping jobs, The Girl's homeschooling, and my credit score from self destructing.

Being a single mom is all about managing, and sometimes you have to manage what you are going to drop.

While I missed being online, I'm happy with how the year has turned out. The Girl appears to have successfully made it through fourth grade homeschool. she has written essays, just finished Trumpet of the Swan (a book she would have refused to even try to read at the beginning of the year) and did a great poster of the Solar System for her final project in astronomy.

Along the way, we had a pretty good time with our plant unit, learned more about the Powhatan Indians and the Jamestown settlement than we ever really wanted to know, and learned to love division. Most importantly we discovered The Girl's musical talent, which is considerable. Who knew!? She is learning three instruments now and is excelling in all three and just had her end of year recital last week.

We are wrapping up this year, and looking ahead to next. I'm still juggling, and hoping I don't drop anything else, and next year we will be homseschooling fifth grade. The summer is going to be spent mostly at home, working on Japanese, art, and music.

Summer is looking good!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Benefits of Boredom

I had a talk to day with my friend Cat Herder and we touched on many topics, one of them being the benefit of boredom for children.

Yes, that's right. BOREDOM.

What do kids do when they have unscheduled time and no TV, computer, or organizing adult to coach them through it?

Cat Herder brought up the topic because her son, also homeschooled, had spent the weekend at a friend's house and the two kept trying to go in and play on the computer or ask Mom for something to do. Mom just kept sending them back outside.

This wasn't cruelty or neglect - the house was safe, secluded, on the banks of a calm creek, and boasted its own basketball hoop and a play set in the back. There were plenty of balls and toys, etc. But instead of rambling, poking in the mud, or shooting some hoops, the boys spent the first day trying to get someone or something else to organize their fun.

Cat Herder's reasoning - they didn't know how to be bored. More precisely, they didn't know how to recognize boredom and deal with it themselves by making their own fun. There they were, completely unscheduled, and the expectation was that some adult, or machine, should tell them what to do.

Her resolve now is to try and make sure that her son gets more of this unscheduled time - preferably in the company of other kids (a bit of a problem as he is an only child).

Her comments made me think about my daughter's recent explosion of creativity. Since we started homeschooling, I've had very strict guidelines on TV time. Once school work is over, if there it isn't time for the TV to come on, then it doesn't come on. The first few days of this The Girl was at a loss. She actually did extra math, the first day.

Then, literally over night, she started drawing and playing her electric keyboard intensively, and asking for a guitar. While she has always like to color, this intensive drawing was new. and the musical interest was a complete shock to me. We have had that keyboard for four years, and she rarely did more than set it to play automatically so that she could dance. Now, she has memorized most of the songs on it!

We haven't started guitar lessons yet, but she is very intent upon playing her instrument and spends a lot of time just exploring the sounds it will make. It kind of reminds me of a baby learning to talk.

Our curriculum, Oak Meadow 4th grade, has supported this blossoming in creativity to an amazing extent, but I truly think that boredom has been the key to bringing out all my daughter's hidden talents.