Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Homeschool in Highschool

This is the final post in a series I've been writing about the homeschooling journey I've been on.  If you are thinking the long delay in me writing this post means that I have been putting a lot of effort into it, you may be disappointed.  :)  The long delay means that I have been spending more time with my family.  I wish I could say that we have focused intently on training Godly character this past week, practicing good habits, reading long hours aloud together, going on walks, etc.  That's not it either.  It's much less romantic!  We have just been living, and sometimes living is about all I can get done.  Sweeping endless crumbs from under the table, preparing meal after meal, washing laundry and dishes, chasing naked toddlers, shouting a chapter of a book (vs. reading) over noisy preschoolers' voices, and mending scraped knees and elbows.  Change is sometimes very slow to come.  One step at a time, day by day, moment by moment.  I press on.

Homeschooling your Kindergartner and First Grader is one thing, but homeschooling high school is a completely different story!  We have carefully considered for months what we should do.  We have the opportunity to send Micah to school in the small rural district where Mitch teaches.  What's so great about small and rural?  Well, while a small school may have the same problems as a large school, there seem to be fewer of them.  Smaller class sizes mean a better teacher-student ratio, and hopefully more individualized instruction.  Smaller class sizes also mean a better opportunity for the parents and teacher to form a working relationship to provide the best education for the student.  Sounds great, right?? 

For me, it came down to a conviction.  I had prayed for months.  As I read and studied, and armed with our family mission and vision statements, I was convicted to continue the path of homeschooling.  I had sought to send Micah to public school because I didn't feel able to continue homeschooling.  And this wasn't even about academics--I am more prepared to teach high school than any other grade level!--though I admit there was a bit of "security" in knowing he would get "all" the instruction that is "required" at a public high school.  My lack of confidence fell to meeting his social needs and dealing with discipline and motivation.  The solution was two-fold:  1) defining Micah's true needs and 2) putting my trust in the Lord to equip me.

How does one put his or her trust in the Lord?  This is an act of faith and submission.  It cannot be achieved without immersion in God's word nor without communion with God in prayer.  Both are areas of my life where God has been faithfully working this year, and I am SO thankful!

Our academic approach for homeschool in high school is to prepare for college, but understand that some children may not choose a college path.  Our curriculum choices were easy enough to make.  What is really cool about the choices I made is that Micah's education can easily be customized to fit his particular strengths and interests.  Eden's path, while using the same curriculum, could look completely different.  In this way, combining our head knowledge with a trust in the Lord, we will be able to help our young people prepare to be the persons God has created them to be.  Our choices also allow for a depth and breadth that may not be allowed in a public school.  I am desperately depending on God to help me challenge and motivate Micah to dig in and study--really study--the world around him that God has made.

The second aspect of our academic approach for homeschool in high school is keeping GOOD records, so that an official transcript can be given to the student upon graduation.  There are several options "out there" on the web that help you with the record-keeping aspects of homeschooling high school.  Some are free, some are costly.  It all depends on how much help you need.  Being a record keeper at heart, I feel confident in my ability to educate myself on keeping records.  I have already set up syllabi for Micah's and Eden's subjects, complete with grading rubrics and course descriptions.  I have designed excel spreadsheets for recording grades, and prepared portfolios with past work that we will add to in the coming years.  We will keep lists of books read (and discussed) as well as essays and reports written, and tests/exams.  Another cool tip we learned is to take photographs documenting the science labs that we complete.  These small tips are great tips that help show colleges and potential employers what your children have spent their years studying.

We also hope to incorporate "dual credit" into our high school experience (PSEO).  In our state, high schoolers in 11th and 12th grades can apply to enter college tuition free.  Students can earn up to 2 years of college credit while still in high school, and these credits count toward their high school credits as well.  (Ie: Biology with lab is a required high school class for students wishing to continue on to college, but this requirement can be fulfilled by signing up for a college-level Biology class).  There are other programs with different benefits, such as CollegePlus.  We need to do more research on this in the coming months.

Family calls (and so does the washing machine), so I need to wrap this up!  Thank you again for joining me in this series.  I hope you have found some helpful tips.  :)  Stay tuned for our regular programming...which will {hopefully} be pictures and a family update and maybe even a garden update!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Spontaneous Learning vs. Prescribed Learning

I want to thank you for joining me as I describe this wonderful journey I've been on.  You have been an encouragement to me in comments, messages, and emails.  Thank you!!  I'm nearly done (or at least nearly out of ideas for new posts for this series).  Today I want to give you some questions to think about, things that I think about when my mind wanders toward education.    

Babies, toddlers, preschoolers love to learn...it is astounding how much a baby learns in the first year of life!
Have you ever given a child an "educational" toy to find that the only people who play with it as it is designed are the older children and adults?

School-age children will readily learn "fun" things their peers are doing...even academic things.
Why do {many} children groan when summer ends and school begins?

Adults voluntarily pursue new hobbies, skills, information to learn about things related to play, work, church, or family...
If a boss (or spouse) requires (asks) an employee (spouse) to attend a training, read a book, or take a class, why does it suddenly sap their motivation to learn?

Why is there a disconnect between spontaneous learning (for which we seem naturally motivated) and prescribed learning?  It would be great if all learning could be spontaneous, but doesn't some learning have to be prescribed?

I hope you're not going to be disappointed, but I don't have the answers to these questions.  I suspect I would need a psychology degree to do that.  ::grin::  I think about this a lot, however, and I've been thinking about it more as I've been on this journey.  Some of the webinars I listened to, especially from CollegePlus, caused me to really get thinking about it.  Something clicked when I started reading Boys Adrift by Dr. Leonard Sax. Dr. Sax identifies 5 factors that are causing a lack of motivation in boys.  Out of all five, the one that has most captivated me is educational methods.

The challenge presented here by Dr. Sax is that we get off on the wrong foot right away in Kindergarten.  Kindergarten today in America is equivalent to what First Grade was 30 years ago.  We expect little boys to begin reading and writing long before they are able to.  A good portion of the boys will do fine.  The others (too high of a percentage, if you ask me) will end up on ADHD medication or in a remedial group.  These boys who struggle to learn (the way the school says they must) will now begin their educational career already feeling like failures, a dogma that will follow them for years.  The acceleration of Kindergarten is not the only issue.  There is also the shift from Kenntnis (experiential knowledge) to Wissenschaft (book knowledge), a lack of real competition for boys, and a disregard for the genuine differences between boys and girls.

As the children progress through school, we apply a factory assembly-line approach to learning and require that every student learn exactly the same set of skills and principles.  This "standardization" of education ensures that all are equal and have equal opportunities.  Cathy Duffy challenges us in her book, 100 Top Picks for Homeschoolers, to consider a contrarian view.  There are other leaders who are stepping forward to say the same thing.  Why do we require what we require?  What is the purpose of this particular educational path?  The answer is so my child can go to college.  Why?  So he/she can get a good paying job.  Why?  So he will be happy and successful...  Why?  And so the questions progress.  One consequence of this assembly-line, conformist approach to learning is that we are not raising students who are able to think for themselves.  Andrew Pudewa loves to ask, especially young people, "How do you think?"  Usually they can't answer.  If they can't think for themselves, well, they won't cause problems...for the people who are in control.  I'm NOT trying to be an alarmist, not at all.  But I am stirring the pot a bit.  It's something to think about.

No matter where your child goes to school, you need to be asking "Why is my child learning this?"  And you need to have a good answer.  If you come up with a good answer, then ask, "Is it the best way my child can learn this?  Is there some way I can give him/her a boost or challenge them to push harder?"  Actually take time to observe your child's natural talents and abilities.  What could it be that God has created this unique person for?  What does he want to be when he grows up?  Why?  Even though these are hard questions, and you probably won't find any definite answers, it's a good exercise in thinking.  It's time we shake off the dust left behind by our own educations and think philosophically.

This is a great lead-in to high school, and you'll see why.  It's up next.  :)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Rest Stop

Anyone want to take a break?  I have been giving you snapshots, in words, of the journey I've been on to rebuild my philosophy of education. 

First, a very short German language lesson from Boys Adrift by Dr. Leonard Sax:

Kenntnis {knowledge about a person or a place that you've actually experienced}
Wissenschaft {knowledge learned from books}

Here are some snapshots of our {real life} summer learning {Kenntnis}.

{The beginning of a new project--widening our driveway--provides lots of opportunity for good, sweaty, dirty work, as well as learning.  Everyone has been involved!}

{What kind of treasure did we find in the yard?}

{A mouse!  And the bad news:  he got away.}

{Malachi learned to ride a bike without training wheels.  The fact that "all the other kids" in the neighborhood were doing it may have been a motivating factor for him to overcome his fear.  I'm just glad he learned to balance quickly and didn't have too many falls.}

{Crushing wheat}

{Watching a spider spin a web in the garden}

{The kids have loved this project.  Lots to learn here.  They have been perpetually dirty.}

{Eden and I did a sewing project and began planning more projects.}

{Climbing a tree}

{Playing with a garter snake we caught.  This one got away too, on purpose.  I hope he catches the mouse!}

{And we found the skin of another one...so cool}

Stay tuned...I have a post about motivation/learning and a post about high school coming up next!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Our Top Curriculum Picks

This is the fourth post in a homeschooling series I'm writing.  To read from the beginning, start here with A Journey.

If you want to know what a curriculum is like, it is easy to find reviews.  Lots of bloggers have written reviews of curricula they have tried.  A simple internet search will turn up many blogs and forums (message boards) with reviews.  Also websites like Homeschool Reviews and Cathy Duffy's Reviews provide reviews.  I like Homeschool Reviews because reviews are posted voluntarily by parents who have (usually) actually purchased and used the curriculum.  I like Cathy Duffy's Reviews because she is one person who has homeschooling experience and has seen all these different curricula first-hand and can offer comparisons.  While I feel it is important to take into account what other people experience, I also try to remember that some people really like the curriculum I am researching, otherwise it would never have been published.  It does meet  someone's needs.  I also remember that not everything will work for everyone.  Just because someone wrote a negative review, does not mean that the curriculum won't work for our family.  Finally, I also remember that my own heart issues play a factor--the kind of teacher I am matters more than the curriculum.

With my mission statement, and some ideas about how I would like to teach this next school year (balanced more towards a Charlotte Mason approach), as well as a general idea of how each of my unique children learn best (that's coming in the next post), I began my curriculum search.  Cathy Duffy's 100 Top Picks for Homeschoolers has a great chart that categorizes 100 of her top curriculum picks.   Though my choices may not be in her top 100, the chart did help me learn the ropes so to speak.  The chart rates each curriculum based on what type of learner it appeals to, how much teacher instruction/prep work is involved, how much writing it requires, grade levels, ease of use, how it fits with certain philosophies of education, and if it has religious content.

Enough is enough.  Let's dig in!


Math is my favorite, so let's start here.  Last year we used Teaching Textbooks Pre-Algebra, 7th Grade, and 5th Grade for Micah, Eden, and Caleb.  They liked it for the most part.  I thought it was pretty easy.  It had a lot of review, and it didn't seem to kill them with practice problems.  I loved that they got immediate feedback after answering a problem, and if they couldn't get the correct answer, they had the option to view the step-by-step solution immediately.  This is a great option for parents who just can't teach the math, or find it too time-consuming.  What we didn't like:  It was maybe too easy, and maybe did not have enough practice problems.  When we lost Caleb's discs, he was able to do the lessons from the workbook (they are well written) and still ace each assignment.  Eden preferred doing lessons from the workbook.  Micah preferred any lesson where I was at his side.  Basically:  They all prefer a real teacher to a computer.

Zeke and Josh used Math-U-See Beta and Alpha.  They enjoyed this.  They would watch the lesson dvd with me (it is for the teacher, not the student) and then do the lessons.  I loved that it was customizable--we moved on when I felt they were ready to move on.  There was a thorough amount of practice and review.  This approach to math is different than I was taught--it's much more mastery based than I'm used to--but I like it, it makes sense.  What we didn't like:  I was too lazy and didn't provide enough direct instruction.  I often gave them their math worksheets and walked away, expecting them to get done.  (I was often disappointed with how long it took them to complete their work using this approach). What I learned: It's ok for the boys to answer the worksheets orally, while I call out the problems and record their answers.  Their handwriting is slow and atrocious, but this is math not handwriting class.  If I had been drilling with flash cards, we could have moved even faster.  Summary:  They need my attention, supervision, encouragement, and support to excel in math.

What will will use this year:  Micah and Eden will progress to Saxon Algebra 1.  Eden will be skipping Pre-Algebra, so she may need a little more practice and reinforcement, but I believe she will do well with direct instruction.  I am skipping Pre-Algebra partly because I feel the pressure to have her do Algebra 1 in 8th grade, a practice now common in Minnesota Public Schools that I thoroughly disagree with.  (Maybe I'll explain why at a later time.)  Should I conform?  Well, I have Saxon Algebra 1/2, so I could have her do that, but my final decision was based upon my assessment of her ability level and my need to combine classes anywhere I can.  If she is discouraged by the difficulty of the course material, we can switch.  But for now it would be practical to have them both in Algebra 1.

Caleb is going to skip Math 6 and use Teaching Textbooks Math 7 that Eden did last year.  He is more than ready for that level.  And it saves me money, since I already own it.

Malachi will use Math-U-See Primer, Josh will progress to Beta, and Zeke will progress to Gamma.  Since this is a different style of learning than Teaching Textbooks or Saxon, I anticipate these guys will stick with Math-U-See all the way through high school.  I hope I'm a better teacher this year than last year!


What we used last year:  Switched-On Schoolhouse grades 8, 7, and 5 for Micah, Eden, and Caleb.  Zeke and Josh did some reading in their A Beka Science books, but usually this was only random.  We did no experiments from any of the books, so their learning was disconnected.  Book learning vs. hands-on learning?  Fail.

What we will use this year:  Apologia Science.  This science curriculum is very popular among Christian homeschoolers and has been around for many years.  It is tested and proven.  It is a curriculum that appeals to the Charlotte Mason approach of learning.  It is very easy to use, and since people have been using it for years, there is lots of support (check out Donna Young) and extra materials (check out A Journey Through Learning Lapbooks for elementary students, we have been enjoying this and they are a bargain!).

Micah and Eden will study Exploring Creation with Physical Science.  I gave Micah the option to choose a different course, but I'm thankful he chose to do Physical Science--easier for me to have them both in the same class!  We WILL be doing the labs, as well as special projects each quarter.  We focus heavily on learning to annotate a book, how to take notes, prepare a study guide, write detailed lab reports, and research beyond course materials.  I got lots of help from the IEW Families support group on yahoo.

Caleb, Zeke, Josh, Malachi, and even Tirzah! are studying Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day (Zoology 1).  We made the decision to start this curriculum during the summer for 2 reasons:  1) I wanted to get practice teaching using the methods I am studying, especially narration, and 2) the second half of this book studies insects, and it's much more interesting to study insects when there are actually insects to study!  Caleb has not been happy with 1) the curriculum change (he doesn't usually like change, and he was just fine with SOS) and 2) summer is NOT the time to do school.  He is slowly coming around, though, and I have been impressed with his work in spite of the fact that he insists he hates insects.  So far, so good.  The younger boys are learning to write about what they learn.  This is not grammar class, so sometimes I write it for them.  I'm not assessing them to see what they didn't learn.  We are simply learning and enjoying it.  When lab experiments come up, we learn the process of creating a lab report, including studying the scientific method.  I love the flexibility of this curriculum.

Language Arts

What we did last year:  Switched-On Schoolhouse grades 8, 7, and 5.  Zeke and Josh did A Beka.  Last year I teamed up with my friend Devona and our kids studied the Institute for Excellence in Writing's Student Writing Intensive B.  What we liked:  I loved IEW.  I felt that Micah, Eden, and Caleb were learning valuable writing tips.  It seemed incredibly easy, yet soooo practical.  Easy is not always bad!  It was like a "Oh! I get it now! Why didn't I learn this sooner?" moment.  For the younger boys, I liked A Beka because I had been through it before, I knew what to expect.  What I didn't like:  I didn't like the fact that I had no idea what Micah, Eden, and Caleb were learning in SOS.  I was completely cut out of the loop, even though I had occasional assignments to grade.  It seemed so shallow. The literature is weak.  Busy work is all.  Zeke and Josh excelled in reading, but hated their A Beka workbooks.  It was also just busy work.  The writing assignments were near impossible for them.  They were disconnected from anything the boys had any interest in whatsoever.  The curriculum didn't match up--how was Josh supposed to write about George Washington without learning anything about George Washington besides fill-in-the-blank exercises?  It was too much.  (As I was doing some cleaning at the end of the year, I came across Caleb's work from when he was in First Grade.  I suspect he is a natural writer--he had completed every single writing assignment.  He wrote to great lengths.  Something to ponder.)

What will will do this year:  Well, Language Arts is easier when broken down into three parts:  Literature, Composition, and Grammar.  We'll start with Composition.  Micah, Eden, and Caleb will do the SWI Continuation Course B.  IEW's core product is Teaching Writing Structure & Style.  The idea is that if the teacher knows how to teach writing, writing will be taught across all subjects.  It will be integrated into Science, History, etc.  So TWSS is a course to teach the teacher.  Right now I'm trying to borrow a copy of the DVD's so that I don't have to spend more money this year.  If I can't get a copy soon (like by the beginning of August), then I will need to buy them.  I plan to teach Zeke and Josh to write using this method.  If it comes to a pinch, there is an adaptation that can be made to the discs we used last year (SWI level B) to be used with younger students, and that is what we'll do. 

Next, we'll look at literature.  Besides just reading, and lots of it, I want my children to learn the basics of literary analysis.  For this, I considered many different curricula.  I looked endlessly for good deals on used copies of the Progeny Press guides.  I considered at length Dr. James Stobaugh's Junior High and High School Language Arts Curriculum.  Finally, when I had decided to just choose books to read together, I found Teaching the Classics.  Someone wrote that TTC does for literature what IEW's TWSS does for writing.  TTC is a teacher course--it teaches the teacher how to teach literary analysis, and it's adaptable for any grade level.  So you, the teacher, learn the method then apply it to whatever literature you choose.  For example, later this year when we are reading Homer's The Iliad for history, we can cover the literary analysis at the same time.  We will be fulfilling two purposes:  studying Ancient Greece AND literature style.  Now connections are being made!  (I've only watched 1 hour of the DVD so far, and I need to watch more, but already I'm trying to decide if I should buy the new Reading Roadmaps supplement that is available.)  

That leaves grammar, which typically includes spelling and vocabulary.  I chose Fix-It! Grammar for Micah, Eden, and Caleb and this was an easy choice for me because it uses the same "language" that the IEW writing classes use.  When I notice things that need to be practiced during other times of writing, this will be the time to bring up certain rules, etc.  I purchased a used copy of the Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation for reference.  Zeke and Josh will use a simpler grammar curriculum that someone gave me a couple years ago from a school that no longer wanted it.  It is a pretty basic curriculum.  

All five of these children will use Spelling Power, at least at the beginning.  This is a completely different approach to spelling.  While I don't think that Micah and Eden need so much spelling practice now, I think it will help to see where they test in at.  I think this program will be perfect for Zeke and Josh.  Josh is a little young, but his spelling ability (linked to his phonics and reading) is high. 

Whew!  Language Arts covers a lot!!  But we're not quite done.  While Fix-It! Grammar incorporates vocabulary,  I also purchased Vocabulary from Classical Roots.  We might not have time for this resource.  I got a good deal, so it wasn't an expensive purchase.  The idea of studying Latin roots is highly appealing to both me and Mitch.  Studying Latin itself would also be appealing, but we're not ready for that.  So this is me dipping my toes in the water, so to speak.

But aren't you forgetting someone?  Oh yes, Malachi is starting Kindergarten.  I love A Beka Phonics.  I had five children learn to read using A Beka, two of them I taught myself.  I am very familiar with the program, and I believe it is a strong one.  However, it is not so strong in teaching kids to write (ie: creative writing, composition).  I took a long, hard look at IEW's newest program, Primary Arts of Language.  I finally decided I would like to integrate this program and also draw from the strengths of A Beka's phonics program.  We are starting a little bit this summer.  I plan to spread out the work over Kindergarten and First Grade, based on Malachi's learning ability and motivation.  Basically I'm watching carefully for signs when he is ready to move on and when we need to slow down.  Right now he's highly motivated to get started with school, so we are starting with learning letters and sounds from A Beka (ie: I says 'i' as in Indian, I says 'i, i, i').  We're making lapbooks for each sound.  We're not writing, we're just learning to identify sounds.  Consider it a warming up.  I really look forward to digging into PAL.  I love how writing is introduced and taught. We are also practicing pre-writing exercises:  cutting, coloring, drawing, and eventually I will crack out some watercolors.  Yes, I will let the kid paint.  Pray for me.  ::grin::

History and Geography

I saved the best for last.  I normally do not prefer History or Geography, but I am excited about our curriculum choice for this year.   What we did last year:  SOS History grades 8, 7, and 5.  Zeke and Josh read from their A Beka History books randomly.  What we liked:  Zeke really likes stories, and the A Beka readers were fun for him.  What we didn't like:  SOS is weak, weak, weak on geography.  It covers too many topics of history only shallowly then requires memorization of dry facts.

What we are doing this year:  TruthQuest History.  TruthQuest History is a series of commentaries (or guides) through periods of history.  Each guide leads you towards a goal--understanding how all of history is really HIS story (God's).  The guide is divided into sections with a short commentary for the student to read, followed by book lists.  You choose as many or as few books as you desire to read.  This is truly a Charlotte Mason approach to learning history because you use real, living books.  Micah and Eden (and Caleb?) will alternate studying "Beginnings" (Creation-Ancient Egypt) with Ancient Greece the first semester and Ancient Rome the second semester.  We are sort of in a hurry, so we need to work through the guides quickly.  Caleb has a little more time before he graduates, so we may go slower.  Zeke, Josh, and Malachi are going to work through American History, beginning with the guide American History for Young Students I.  Because the guides are written for you to plot your own unique course in studying history, there are no written tests/assessments provided for students.  There are Think/Write exercises that provoke thought and require response.  This program is really genius.  It will adapt to our unique situation perfectly--where we have learners on several different levels.  The response that I require will be based on my expectations given the current grade/ability level of each student.  It can easily be individualized in the way that a multiple-choice true/false test cannot.  More important than that, is how closely it meets our vision and fits with my Top 5 Priorities.  I wrestled for weeks with trying to decide if this curriculum was right for us.  One day I looked at the list in one hand and TruthQuest History in the other, and it was like a bell went "ding!" in my head.  It clicked.  This makes it perfect to double as a Bible curriculum as well, especially while we're studying Beginnings.  Two other programs I considered were Dr. Stobaugh's High School History curriculum (and I actually plan to review this, as it looks very good!) and Notgrass America the Beautiful (also a choice that looks very good, though it doesn't look easy enough for my younger kids nor challenging enough for my high schooler, so I felt I would end up with three different history levels to teach at one time).

For now, we will study geography integrated into the history we are studying.  At some point I may pull back and do a dedicated geography course in high school.  A great resource I got for free is Global Mania.   I also purchased a used copy of the Ultimate Geography and Timeline Guide 2nd Edition (ok, actually I bought the 1st edition, which was about 1/3 of the cost).  I can't wait to cover the wall of our living room with a timeline!!


We are about done.  Those are the major subjects.  Here are some "extras":

Rosetta Stone German.  Micah wants to go to Germany for at least a summer a couple years from now.  I took a vote and nearly everyone said they'd rather learn German than Spanish.  So I hope to invest in this  great (but expensive!) program soon.

Photography.  Eden indicated an interest in photography recently.  Well, I jumped all over that one.  In fact, she asked if she could sell her iPod Touch and buy a nice camera.  She sold her iPod to her younger brothers (who split the cost 3 ways), but it wasn't quite enough money for a "good" camera.  I was willing to let her pull from her savings in order to make up the difference.  She won a great deal on a used Nikon Coolpix P500 on eBay.  It's not an SLR, but she can control aperture, shutter, ISO, white balance, you know--the basics of good photography.  I'm going to let this interest take whatever direction she wants it to go--artistic? mechanics/how-to of photography? editing?  We'll study whatever she wants to learn, using resources we can get low-cost or borrow.  Devona wisely suggested checking with 4-H and the Boy Scouts (they have a merit badge for photography). I'm documenting in order to credit her studies in this fine art.

Phy-Ed by Family Time Fitness.  I admit that I really don't like exercise programs.  But I see that some of my kids are as wimpy as noodles.  Time to whip it in shape, kids! We tried getting started doing this this summer, but failed after I got sore from doing the squats the first day (note to self:  do not do 20 squats first time out.  Especially not 40!!).  I'm not giving up.  We're going to get back into this as soon as the weather cools off.  What I hope to do is build motivation through competition among the boys.  I think it's going to work...if I can just stay motivated myself.  I have been making many good lifestyle changes, so something tells me that I'm going to be able to do it! 

That is, as they say, a wrap!  Now I'm definitely ready for a potty break.  Stay tuned for more, including a discussion about high school.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Heart of the Matter

This is the third post in a homeschooling series I am writing.  Read the first post, A Journey and the second post, Developing New Education Methods.

There are SO many wonderful resources available for homeschool families.  I have never been to a convention, but I hear it can be overwhelming to stand in a hall with vendor booths and stare at all the hundreds of items you "need" to make your homeschool the best.  I feel that way when I shop online for resources.  Everything is packaged and marketed to sound WONDERFUL.  Everything is designed to help your kids love learning.  Everything is written to be a solution where other curricula have failed.  So how do you even begin to choose?

In the past, I would read a description about a curriculum, then search for reviews, then try a sample, and make my decision.  This is a logical, sequential, and repeatable process.  Perfect for math brains like mine.  Only when I look back at the past five years I haven't had the results that I expected to have when I did the research.  Not always anyway (some products I have tried and LOVE).  So what is the solution?

First, I need to understand the real problem here.  The real problem isn't exactly the curriculum choices I had made, but my method of educating the children.  In the past my goal was to have independent learners.  On the surface, this doesn't sound like a bad goal.  You will no longer find that in my list of Top 5 Priorities, because it just doesn't work for our family.  Don't get me wrong, my kids can learn independently.  But they do so grudgingly.  They will learn more, and willingly, if I am teaching them.  If I am coming alongside them to help them in their work, they excel. 

Now we are digging deep.  This is an area that God has been working in my heart for months.  My willingness to lay down my own life--desires, hobbies, plans--to serve my family is what God is gently asking from me.  This is not about you or what I might see in your life, if you feel a chord of agreement then perhaps it is an area you feel God working too, but this is about me.  My desire to have independent learners wasn't primarily about my children becoming life-long learners, though that would be a noble goal.  My desire to have independent learners was so I could continue to look like "super mom" while I have smart kids and run two businesses and have friends and free time and intellectual pursuits and the list goes on.  In other words, it was selfish.  It is something like this, "I want you to go work on your school.  No, I can't help you right now, I'm too busy.  I have to _________."  Where filling in the blank might be: answer an email, write a blog post, sew a diaper, mail a package, finish this book, etc.  This is not noble.  These things can wait!  Now, changing a diaper sometimes can NOT wait.  But we are not talking about good priorities.  I fully admit that I have selfish priorities.  My selfish priorities prevent me from being the teacher my kids need.

When priorities are wrong, there is no miracle curriculum.  There is no curriculum, not even in public school, where I can set my kid in front of it and get a great result out with no effort or sacrifice on my part.  Why do I bring all this up now in this portion of the journey?  Because I want you to understand that I haven't found the "perfect recipe" of curricula that will ensure a great homeschool year.  There are MANY wonderful curricula from which to choose.  What I have found is a heart change.  Without this, my efforts would be reduced to spending hundreds of dollars on new curriculum that garners results little better than last year and the years before that.

This heart change IS a miracle.  God is transforming me from the inside out.  I often wish He would work faster.  I want to let go of anger and bitterness and impatience and selfishness that cause me to be a cruel teacher.  I want to be filled with His Spirit and to pour on grace to my children like a salve to heal all wounds.  He is faithful to grant what I ask, though I still am and will be until Christ returns, a work in progress.  So at the very bottom of the page in my binder with my Top 5 Priorities and Secondary Priorities I have written a reminder to myself:
One step at a time, day by day, moment by moment.
It can be hard to think about--sacrificing my time to be a better teacher? How much more time do I give up?  Don't I need time for me?  God gently leads, "Trust Me."  Do my kids really need that much of me?  "Yes, absolutely!"  They answer.  I think nearly every single child has voiced a desire in the past few months to have more time with me.  Only God Himself speaking could be more loud and clear.  This is more than a desire from the children, this is a deep-seated, TRUE NEED.  Yes, yes I will answer the call to give up myself.  I will serve my family and in doing so I will be serving Christ.

NEXT, I promise, is the post on which curriculum we chose.  :)  Then we need a pit stop (anyone else need a potty break?), and after that I will write about how we came to our decision of what to do for high school.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Developing New Education Methods

My journey to develop a new philosophy of education and plan for the coming school year(s) continues.  To read the first post in this series (A Journey), click here.

Armed with a mission statement, a vision, and a list of priorities, I now had to rethink all my methods of education.  If you have been reading my blog for a while, you may be familiar with different things we've tried in our homeschooling adventure.  We have been homeschooling for 5 years.  For 3 of those years, we used primarily A Beka and for 2 of those years we used a lot of Switched-On Schoolhouse.  We have tried a few other things (Math U See and A Teaching Textbook), but my primary method was recreating school at home.  Why not?  It was what I knew best!  It was how I learned, and how I was taught to teach--the traditional classroom model of education.  Isn't it the method that works best?  Not necessarily.  I have some very grumpy, unhappy kids.  One of them scored excellently on standardized tests but failed at home life.  My efforts to reach their souls, to make lasting character changes, seem like arrows bouncing off brick walls.  My children behave just fine away from home, but within our four walls strife reigns more often than it should.  The child who scored so well on testing hates school and refuses to do one more day if something doesn't change.  The others are not far behind.  But now what?  How do I teach such a diverse group of children?  Surely I can't teach one-on-one, but they each need attention and desire to have my undivided attention!

Again, Cathy Duffy came to the rescue.  Her book provides summary explanations of some of the most popular homeschooling (and classroom) teaching methods available:  Traditional, Charlotte Mason, Classical, Unit Study, Unschooling, Independent Study, Eclectic, and Umbrella Program.  Using a chart of questions, we were able to define the top 3 methods we personally agree with.  ("We" here means me and Mitch.  He graciously listened to me ask each and every question and offered his input.)  With this, I began curriculum research that fit better into our mold of what we want and need.  So many times on this journey I have wished that this had happened to me 5 years ago.  After all, haven't we wasted precious years?  Have we done damage we can't undo trying to pressure children to fit into molds that don't fit?  Have we learned bad habits?  Ah, but sometimes you don't know what you want or like or need until you try something!  And I am a slow learner.  At this point I take a breath and lay my burden on God.  He made me and He made my children.  He knows what's best for them, and He has set me as a teacher over them.  He will equip me in His time.

I cannot teach 6 children one-on-one.  It's not physically possible.  So we need to adopt a teaching method that will allow me to teach multiple children at once.  If you think about the ability levels of, say, 20 children in a traditional classroom, most of them are on different levels also.  In fact, there will be at least 3 different levels of learning/ability in a large classroom.  And a teacher has many other factors to have to deal with in that setting.  If they can do it, so can I.  But if you haven't guessed it yet, I'm completely abandoning the "traditional" classroom approach.  It's outta here.

Before I could adopt a method, I had to learn more about how children learn.  I had to learn more about these methods.  Though the Charlotte Mason approach was not our top method from the survey, it was #3, and that is where my research began.  (In case you're curious, Unit Study was number 2 and Unschooling was number 1 on Mitch's list...but Unschooling is too much of a stretch for me, so...)

Here are some of the books I have read on my journey (and you will soon see why I haven't been posting any new book reviews!):

A Charlotte Mason Companion: Personal Reflections on the Gentle Art of Learning
A Charlotte Mason Education
Educating the WholeHearted Child -- Third Edition
A Love That Multiplies: An Up-Close View of How They Make It Work by Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar (nothing like getting your heart in the right place first!)
So You're Thinking About Homeschooling: Second Edition: Fifteen Families Show How You Can Do It (Focus on the Family) by Lisa Whelchel (there's a chapter in this one specifically for moms of many children, and Lisa Whelchel is funny as always)
The Mission of Motherhood: Touching Your Child's Heart for Eternity

There might be more books, if so I will edit the list.  I have also been attending webinars.  I attended a couple at the Institute for Excellence in Writing.  I attended a few at CollegePlus.  I have listened to several audio files from IEW (some free if you create a free account).  And I've read and read and read MANY articles on that website.  It's a treasure trove! I highly recommend all these resources.

Some books not related to homeschooling, but on the subject of how children learn, that I have been reading:

What Your Childhood Memories Say about You . . . and What You Can Do about It by Kevin Leman.  Kevin Leman is a popular and funny psychologist and author.  I have enjoyed a few of his books.  While this book is not outstanding and falls somewhat short of its original goal, it does give some interesting insight to how memories are formed.  I didn't read this book expecting for help with homeschooling, but it did reinforce things I read in other educational resources.  It was a signpost on my journey indicating I was still on the right track.

Finally, the last book I want to give a HUGE review to is one I'm currently reading.  This book is captivating.  IF YOU HAVE A BOY, READ THIS BOOK!!!!  Or at least consider reading this book.

Boys Adrift is a largely secular book.  Warning: It has a bit of an evolutionary viewpoint in the first chapter, but I found that it doesn't detract from the message.  There is no mention (so far anyway) of homeschooling whatsoever in this book.  Homeschooling is not presented as a possible solution.  I obviously think it can be part of the solution, but its omission also does not detract from the urgent message of the book.  That's why I think you if you have boys, regardless of if you homeschool, you should read this book!  Dr. Sax is both a family practice doctor AND a psychologist.  He has many years of experience working directly with patients.  His conclusions are based on actual scientific studies and he refutes the approach of "Well, my kid turned out fine."  The edition I am reading (the hardback) was published in 2007, so the book is in need of an update (especially information about bisphenol A and phthalates--which now have heavy restrictions regarding the use of in items for children under 12 years old).   I also have Dr. Sax's book Why Gender Matters to read next.  I got both from my public library.  Girls on the Edge, also by Dr. Sax, is on my short list, but I am not sure when I will get to it since I have other priorities.

That's a lot of research!

To summarize, here are some of the things that I have concluded about education:
1) Children learn best when they are studying things that really matter to real life.  Rather than choose an approach that covers "everything", it's better to focus and dig deeper.  Then real learning begins.
2) Children need to be read to.  They need to hear it.  Reading should be done out loud, by the teacher, and we don't do it enough.  Read more.  Read the classics.  Read "living", whole books.
3) Have the children narrate back to you what they have just heard from the reading.  Give children your full attention, and do not interrupt them when they are narrating. (Much has already been written on how to do this.  For starters, check out this article in The Old Schoolhouse magazine by Karen Andreola:  Narration: A Big Homeschool How-To.)
4) You cannot help a child too much.  Period.
5) Memorization is a valuable, teachable skill that has been ignored.

So there you have it, at least part of it!  This is a good portion of the freeway I have been speeding down.  I have been reading and reading and reading some more.  Next we'll take a look at the curriculum choices I considered, what we finally decided, and why. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Journey

It's like I've been on a long journey.  That's why I haven't had time (or focus) to blog on a regular basis.  There is so much to update about and tell. 

As the school year came to a close, and I began to look toward the next school year and do some planning, I began a journey.  It turns out that it is a journey to completely rebuild my philosophy of education.

What is a philosophy of education?  Well, I remember one of my earliest college classes was titled just that, but to be honest you don't have to go to college to have a philosophy of education.  In fact, you already have one.  A philosophy of education is how you prefer learn.  It's how your children learn best.  It is how we approach teaching--methods and goals.  You may have never really thought about it, but you do have a preference.  All people are learners, and usually all people have the chance to teach someone else something.  You may do so without even thinking about it.  Or maybe you give it a lot of thought.  That is the journey I've been on.

Since I went to school to be a high school mathematics teacher, I have sat through many obligatory hours of "education" classes at the university level.  We have discussed methods and strategies and popular techniques...all applied toward teaching a large, diverse classroom full of students.  I think many veteran teachers will tell you the classes in college matter very little once you get out in the field and start working--it's then that you really begin to learn how to teach.

I work in a diverse classroom, though it's a fraction of the size of my husband's 3rd grade class (and see, you thought I had a large family, now you see it's not very large after all!).  So after all these years of thinking that school should be done a certain way, I have finally turned a corner.  The journey began with a gentle tearing down of all the old philosophies I had "held dear".

So, how does one teach a kindergartner, second grader, third grader, sixth grader, eighth grader, and ninth grader all at one time?  The answer is in the question.  First off, we're going to all learn at the same time.  No more sending children off into separate corners to do their learning.  Yes, they will have times of independent study, but we are going to strive to be in a group more often than we are divided.  But I'm getting ahead of myself a little.  That's application, and we still have to build philosophy.

There were small things that got my motor started early in the spring, but the turning point for me was when Mitch and I sat down together and developed a family mission statement.  I blogged about this earlier:  we ended up adopting our church's mission statement, because everything that we kept coming up with sounded pretty much just like a shadow of that.
"We exist to live, share, and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the glory of God and our abundant joy."
Our mission statement is our ultimate goal, our purpose, what we're about.  We can be having a lot of fun (our abundant joy) while giving glory to God and fulfilling the mission statement.  We can also release ourselves from the burden of bureaucratic "have to's" that we think we need to do all the time to be a "good" family...because in the light of our mission statement, some things just aren't important today.

In creating a mission statement, we also created a "vision" for our family.  This is under the umbrella of the mission statement, but some character qualities or activities we want to see present in our family when we look in from the outside.  Our vision is:
That our children would be Christ followers, sharing the Gospel with everyone, our family would be bound in unity, that Grace would abound in our home so that we may show our love for God and for others, that we would appreciate each person's unique giftedness, overflowing in generosity, and have an intimate knowledge of God's word.
With these down on paper, a good foundation for us, I began to rebuild my philosophy of education.  One great resource that I used was Cathy Duffy's Top 100 Picks for Homeschoolers.  This book was available at my local library, and I loved it.  There is a new version coming out, and I'd love to read it.  I came up with a list of my Top 5 Priorities, as well as Secondary Priorities.  I printed these out and posted them, along with our mission statement and vision, right inside my teacher binder.  They are in the very front to remind me each time I sit down to work, to keep my priorities in order. 

Top 5 Priorities
1) Cultivate a strong sense of God's reality in all aspects of their lives.
2) Develop excellent knowledge of Scripture and foundational theological truths.
3) Foster a heart for service to others.
4) Cultivate good work habits.
5) Love to learn

Secondary Priorities
1) Develop excellent reading, thinking, and communication skills
2) Prepare for college (whether you go or not)
3) Be physically fit (for life-long benefits)

But, but, but....don't you have your priorities mixed up?  Shouldn't academic priorities be first?  Especially when homeschooling??

::deep breath::

Think about this with me.  We can focus on good grades and covering all the "right" subjects in school, and completely neglect our children's spiritual lives.  But if we are working on the top 5 priorities, it's awfully hard to completely miss out on the secondary priorities.  Yes, we might miss something.  But guaranteed your child will miss something you have tried (or a teacher has tried) to teach them.  Somehow I made it all the way to college not knowing where Germany was located in Europe.  I couldn't figure out the whole East/West thing, so I decided Germany must be an island and went on from there.  I was salutatorian (the second-highest ranking) of my high school class.  Ahem.  My children will miss something!  But if my children love to learn, they will not miss anything they need to know.  They will learn it, because they want to learn it.  They will want to learn it because they are aware of God's presence and long to know Him more, because they want to serve others, because they have good work habits.  (And I will make SURE my kids know how to locate Germany...and France and Austria and Poland...on the map!  Secondary priority.) 

Ah!  This sounds great, but that is what philosophy is.  Philosophy sounds great on paper, but working it out is entirely another thing.  And at this point, my journey just hit the freeway and we set the cruise at 70 mph.  Stay tuned for more of the story!

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Garden Party

Well, there's so much green out there, and I have marigolds blooming on all sides, so it's LIKE a party! 

 A green bell pepper hanging out in the straw bale.

 A new green bell pepper in the garden...the race is on!

 A couple weeks ago, I went through and put a new kind of fertilizer on all my straw bales.  Since then, I think my plants have turned the corner.  They are greener, the leaves are not curled, and no spots have returned (I pinched off all the icky leaves before).  There is a real, noticeable difference now.  They're still not HUGE by any means, but at least they are showing growth and good color again.

 The cucumber on the left is at least 3 weeks younger than the cucumber on the right, even though they are nearly the same size.  See how the one on the right is a pale green, while the one on the left is a nice dark green?  When I transplanted my second set of cucumbers, I dug holes large and deep into the straw bales.  I poured in the fertilizer, then added potting soil.  It's not organic, but I think it will be ok.  This has made a huge difference in how the 3 new cucumber plants are growing.  I think they'll actually make something of themselves.  ;)

 There's my rogue pumpkin growing out the back of the garden.  It is covered with blossoms.  I told it we only need one pumpkin...but it is trying.  It occasionally sends a tendril towards the middle, but I'm always right there to push it out of the bed.

 See my tiny okra growing!  The plants aren't very big, so I was surprised to see okra growing on them already.

I love the flowers so much that I'm threatening to only grow flowers next year.  Ha!  I have asked Mitch if we can build another bed instead of using straw bales, and he said yes.