Archive for the ‘Character’ Category

Even Schools are Recognizing the Value of Personalized Learning

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Photo by WBUR Flickr Photostream/Creative Commons

Photo by WBUR Flickr Photostream/Creative Commons

I heard a report on my local public radio station about the finalists for the federally funded “Race to the Top” competition. According to the Department of Education website, the sixteen winning “districts will share nearly $400 million to support locally developed plans to personalize and deepen student learning, directly improve student achievement and educator effectiveness, close achievement gaps, and prepare every student to succeed in college and their careers.”

The report I heard focused on the three small California districts that won, beating out several bigger districts. What are these school districts doing that won them the cash prize?

They are personalizing their students’ curriculum.

New Haven United has an aggressive plan to provide each student in grades 6 through 12 with their own digital tablet, along with hiring extra math, literacy and assessment coaches to help teachers personalize instruction. Lindsay Unified is shifting all their students to performance-based learning, which allows students to work at their own pace through all the material required for ultimate graduation. Galt Elementary District is implementing StrengthsExplorer to create a blend of individualized online learning with classroom instruction for each student. Apparently, the students in these districts have responded very well to the changes. Teachers at Lindsay Unified describe a new excitement for learning when the kids realize they really can move ahead whenever they’re ready, even if that means the kids move up to the next grade level’s material.

I think this news is very encouraging. Could it be that educational authorities are recognizing the value of self-directed learning? I mean for real – not just warm fuzzy platitudes. It would seem so, at least in part. These Districts are still controlling what their students learn, but at least they’re giving the kids some latitude with how and when to learn.

Not everyone can homeschool, and I’ve often wondered how public schools might implement the advantages that homeschooling offers. Hiring enough teachers to create a student to teacher ratio of 6 to 1 would be amazing, but prohibitively expensive. Perhaps the next best solution is technology. Why should all kids have to sit through the same lecture when some kids already know the material, some kids have no clue what is going on, and other kids are simply more visual or kinesthetic learners? Providing every child with a digital tablet or some other regular access to a the Internet would allow access to the information students need to know, whenever they are ready to learn it.

Just this one innovation, if it was really used, would give kids some sense of control over their own education. Of course, it would be even better to let kids have more of a say in the content of their curriculum, besides just picking a few electives in high school. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. That’s the ultimate control isn’t it? Controlling what kids learn, and in autocratic countries, controlling what adults learn, too. I’m not insinuating that this is done with evil intent. On the contrary, I think authorities generally have noble intentions of doing what is best for their students. They truly want kids to succeed.

My argument is simply that top-down curriculum is not as effective as passion inspired curriculum. It would be lovely if our kids readily absorbed all those carefully chosen textbooks we give them, but if they’re not interested, very little of that information is going to stick with them. Why waste everyone’s time (teachers included), when kids could be investigating things they are really curious about? I would also argue, that even with the best of intentions, we can’t know best what anyone else should learn. We can share what we know, but every child will grow up to do things that we cannot foresee. The best we can do for them is to avoid squashing their natural impulse to learn, and give them the tools and resources to find what they need, when they need it.

Oh well, these winning school districts are off to a good start. Other districts will be watching to see if these innovations produce results. In the future, hopefully more schools will be leveraging technology to give kids more control over the delivery of their curriculum and at least some customization based on learning styles and strengths.

Put Some Sparkle on Your Worries

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"All we are, or have been, or ever will be, comes from the quality and force of our thinking." - Orison Swett Marden

The other night, I found myself laying awake worrying about things. Instead of conveniently scrolling along in a nice neat list, my mental worry list is more like a spider web.  As I think about one thing I must do, it leads to two or three more things that go along with it, and so on, in never-ending circles. My problems are not terrible – I really have no reason to complain. It’s just the usual overload of paperwork, bills to pay, dirty house, grass that must be mowed, work deadlines, logistics, and big decisions to make about where our family goes next (a constant challenge for military families).

So, as I was laying there going around and around my spider web, I took a moment to step outside my head and notice what I was doing. The tone of my thoughts was all negative: poor poor me. So, I forced myself to rephrase everything. Instead of thinking,”I don’t have time to do these pages – I’ll never get them done in time,” I thought, “I got one good page done today and I’ll make another one tomorrow.” Instead of fretting about all the time I spend driving my teenage daughter to/from school and gymnastics, I thought about how she talks to me the whole time. If I weren’t driving her, I may not get a chance to hear all about her day, or her plans for her next art project, or the funny things that her friends said. When she gets her driver’s license, I’ll have more time for myself but less with her, so I should really be enjoying these moments!

I took everything that was pestering me and put a positive twist on it, and I felt much better. In all the places where I felt self-doubt (“Will anybody like this?” or “Am I doing the right thing?”), I decided to just concentrate on how I felt about doing my work or the decisions I make. I have no control over what other people think, and I can virtually guarantee that there will always be someone who disagrees with me. So, it’s better to just think joyful thoughts (“I like doing this. It’s interesting!”) and not sap the energy from my work. The spider web is still there in my head, but now it’s all sparkly with dewdrops in the morning sun (how’s that for positive spin?).

My husband took a training course once where the instructor demonstrated the amazing power of positive vs. negative thoughts. He had people stand up and hold their arms out to their sides as firmly as possible. The instructor first instructed the volunteers to announce positive things about themselves (“I’m strong. I can do anything.”) while he pushed down on their arms and they resisted. Then he had them switch to negative statements (“I’m weak, I never do anything right.”) while he pushed down on their arms with identical force. The difference was remarkable and apparent to everyone in the room. It was much much harder to hold up their arms while repeating the negative statements, even if they didn’t personally believe what they were saying. Just the act of saying negative words was enough to weaken the strongest among them.

One of my favorite success gurus, Orison Swett Marden, said it well: “All we are, or have been, or ever will be, comes from the quality and force of our thinking.”

I’m going to write those words on a card to post above my kitchen sink. Even though I KNOW about the power of positive thinking, it’s easy to forget when life piles on. So, I urge you to do it. Write those words somewhere you will see them everyday and find a way to turn all your negatives to positives. You ARE strong. Make it happen!

Is Homeschooling Good or Bad for Introverts?

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Lighthouse Keeper's Cottage, Cape Florida Lighthouse (Wikimedia Commons)

In 2nd grade, I used to fantasize about having a wooden shed about the size of an outhouse around my school desk, with a window facing the teacher and walls all around me. I thought all the children should have their own little sheds – wouldn’t that be great? We could even have our own mini refrigerators and bookshelves and comfy seats, all tucked away in the privacy of our personal little classrooms. It never occurred to me that the other kids might not like this.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have friends or sat lonely on the sidelines during recess. It wasn’t that I had horrible classmates or any traumatic experiences. It’s just that I felt really comfortable being alone. I’m a classic introvert. Being alone recharges my batteries, while socializing gradually drains me. I like to hang out with friends and family, but after too long I feel exhausted and have to be alone again.

I worried about that when I made the decision to homeschool my kids. Was I overlaying my introverted preferences on to my kids? My oldest and youngest are most definitely extroverts like their father. They THRIVE on attention and socializing.  Was I going to cramp their style by keeping them at home?

I made a dedicated effort to get them out of the house, playing with other kids, but we also played together a lot as a family. I always gave them the choice to go to school if they wanted to, and they both tried it, but found that the social advantages didn’t make up for the boredom (although my youngest is now enjoying her charter high school for the arts). As teenagers, they found friends through sports and extracurricular activities.

I wonder how many homeschooling parents are introverts? I would have loved homeschooling as a child if there had been a choice. Maybe that is one of the reasons it appealed to me as a parent (but it’s certainly not the only reason).

I also wonder if it would have bad for me to have been homeschooled – maybe I wouldn’t have ever gotten used to be around a lot of people.  It’s hard to know for sure, because you can never go back and live it both ways. But introverts aren’t anti-social, they just prefer smaller groups of people and more alone time than extroverts do.

My middle son is somewhat introverted. He likes to be around people, but stays on the edges where he can watch and listen. He doesn’t need to be the center of attention. I remember bringing him to a preschool once for a visit when he was three. He had been used to a toddler playgroup, but this preschool class was crowded with boisterous kids running around having a great time. My son was horrified. I watched his eyes and knew exactly how he felt. So he has chosen to homeschool his whole life and has never once been in a regular classroom until Community College. He played with neighborhood kids and had regular sports and other activities, but he really prefers conversations with small groups or one-on-one. I don’t think homeschooling has hurt his social skills, but it made it harder to find people with similar interests. Not many kids (or adults for that matter) want to talk about economics, math or programming languages, so he had to stick to video game and media topics. He can hardly wait to go off to a four year college this Fall to meet more kindred spirits.

Maybe those folks who worry most about socialization are extroverts. To them, it must seem like torture to be at home all day instead of being surrounded by other children. Or maybe they are introverts who always wished they were extroverts like the popular kids at their schools. But as long as homeschooled kids are not isolated, and have opportunities to make close friendships and acquaintances, there’s a lot to be gained from the time and space to be themselves. Instead of worrying so much about fitting in or pleasing other people, kids can think their own thoughts and do their own thing.

Homeschooling offers introverts a better balance of alone time with together time, kind of like my imaginary little classroom shack. True extroverts will probably need a lot more social opportunities, not just with other kids, but adults too. It’s not hard to find homeschool groups these days to fill up your schedule with field trips, park days, special classes and other activities. If anything, it’s easy to over schedule our kids. We just need to pay attention to how their batteries are charged and keep things balanced out.

What do you think? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? How does that affect your thoughts about homeschooling?

How Do You Get Kids to Try Hard?

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Do you ever worry about your kids’ lack of drive? Oomph? Follow-through? Do they forget about taking out the trash or doing their assignments? Do they avoid work at all costs? I worried about that, too.

After all, hard work is important. As I was doing research for my book, one of the things that struck me about each of the people I studied was that they were all so determined. They were diligent, hard working, and didn’t give up after failures.

For example, Andrew Carnegie had a very disadvantaged start. He was a dirt poor immigrant from Scotland, whose father, a weaver, had trouble learning a new trade once machines took over the job of making linens. The family was just barely scraping by and Andrew went to work in a bobbin factory as soon as he could. It wasn’t long before people noticed his hard work and “pluck” so he was given more responsibilities and opportunities. He worked his way up to messenger boy and a telegraph operator and eventually became a superintendent of the Pittsburgh division of  the Philadelphia Railroad Company at the age of  18. There he learned as much as he could about business and money, while making friends with very influential people. He started companies, made investments, and eventually became very wealthy.

Andrew and Thomas Carnegie, image from Project Gutenberg

The story of Andrew Carnegie is classic rags to riches, and we all love those kinds of stories – so why isn’t everybody like Andrew Carnegie? Admittedly, he had good timing by being involved with the railroad and steel industries just as they were beginning to take off. But there were other boys in Pittsburgh who were there at the right place at the right time as well. What did he have that the other poor boys in Pittsburgh did not? I don’t know the stories of those other boys, and for all I know, some of them might have turned out very successful as well. But I do know that Carnegie worked his brains out, and then worked a little bit more. He always seemed to take that extra step. When he was a messenger boy, he decided to learn every street by heart so he could deliver his messages more quickly. He learned the names and faces of all the prominent businessmen so he could deliver messages even while meeting recipients on the street. He made a very good impression wherever he went, because he tried so hard. He also kept learning, paid attention, borrowed books, and copied the manners of the “educated” upper class.

Carnegie would never have been as successful if he hadn’t tried so hard. Again it strikes me – why isn’t everybody like that?

My kids have had their share of laziness, forgetting chores and other unappealing tasks, but they do know how to work hard when they set their minds to it. I wondered if this would be enough when they went off to “regular” school and had to do so much more homework along with all their other activities. But they have handled it amazingly well, maybe because they’re not sick of school yet. However, they can’t understand the attitude of so many other students who sleep in class, or goof around, or don’t pay attention. They bring me stories of how frustrated they are when working with some group projects because there are other students who just won’t do the work. They will agree to something but not deliver. Or they will deliver the bare minimum. Then my kids are stuck putting the whole project together on their own. It could be that these kids would work really hard outside of class, or for something they cared about. But it still begs the question: why do some people try hard and others do not?

I’m sure there are not any perfect answers, but based on what I have learned from the lives of successful people, I propose four reasons:

  1. Positive Attitude – People have to believe that their actions make a difference, and that there is hope for a better life. I think that most of us pick up the attitudes of those closest to us as children, so if our friends and family have positive attitudes, it will rub off. We also need to feel worthy or loved in order to face the risk of failure.
  2. Interest – In order to try hard, one first has to care about the outcome or at least care from a sense of integrity. So even if a student doesn’t care about a particular geography project or chemistry lab, they need to at least care about fulfilling a task they have agreed to do. But it’s always easier to work hard on a job that interests us.
  3. Ownership – This goes above and beyond just working hard. A lot of poor souls work hard with nothing to show for it. It’s also about going that extra step, learning to do something better or different. For this, a person needs to feel ownership of his or her own work. If they are waiting for someone to tell them exactly what to do, then they have given up ownership. It’s amazing to me that society claims to value initiative, yet tries so hard to make citizens obedient instead.
  4. Mentoring – People, especially children, need examples of what is possible. They need to know that success is possible, even for them, and they need to see what it looks like to work hard. Andrew Carnegie’s mother was a great mentor, extremely hardworking and resourceful. She was always looking for opportunities to improve their situation, and was willing to try new things. If his mother had given up, or felt like a victim with no luck, as if there was no use trying, how might Andrew have been different? He also had mentors as he grew older: all of those businessmen who were impressed by Carnegie’s “pluck” shared their experience and knowledge with him, and offered him opportunities he may never have had on his own. Carnegie also credited his childhood heroes of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce for the examples they set. Whenever times were tough, he remembered their stories and tried to emulate their courage and character, thinking to himself, “What would Wallace and Bruce do?”

As parents, the main things we can do for our kids is to love them completely; and model a positive attitude and strong work ethic. If you are reading this, then hard work is probably already important to you, but remember to keep it positive. We can also give our kids more ownership over their projects and work. If they mess up, they will generally learn more from their mistakes based on natural consequences. If we nag, criticize or punish, then that means we have taken ownership of their problem. If they ask for our help or advice, that’s different. But otherwise, allow your kids the dignity of believing they can do the job, and a chance to do it however they see fit.

One example of this is grades and school work. I’ve generally let my kids have a great deal of control over their curriculum and daily work. If they don’t want to do their math, they don’t have to. Really. But eventually they always start worrying about getting behind and decide to do the work anyway. And no, I don’t taunt them with dire warnings of failure in life if they don’t get good grades. I just have a firm belief that it is up to them, and they can be successful no matter what they decide. They have a complete sense of ownership over their education, and it shows in the way they get their work done.

The thing that we as parents don’t have much control over is interest. Our kids might have a great attitude and sense of ownership, but if the subject is really dull, they still won’t work as hard as they will for something interesting. But I don’t think that’s a terrible thing. There’s no need for any of us to knock ourselves out over every little thing. I may have to remind my kids to clean the bathroom, but they will do it, and then they’ll work for hours to make sure their own pet projects are done right. It’s important to be selective over how we spend our time. You will be amazed though at the difference it makes, just letting your kids make those decisions for themselves. Give them time. Give them space. Maybe a few stories about William Wallace and Robert the Bruce wouldn’t hurt either.


John Muir

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“Wildness was ever sounding in our ears, and Nature saw to it that besides school lessons and church lessons some of her own lessons should be learned, perhaps with a view to the time when we should be called to wander in wildness to our heart’s content.” (p. 28)

Having just returned from a family vacation in the Eastern Sierras and Yosemite, I thought it would be appropriate to write about the education of one of my favorite people . . .

John Muir had a rough and tumble boyhood growing up in the strict Calvinist community of Dunbar, Scotland. He and the other boys played soldier like their heroes William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. To be a good fighter was their highest ambition, but the boys also found amusement roaming the seashore and countryside, climbing walls and trees looking for birds’ nests, playing with toy boats, competing in running and wrestling matches, and experimenting with gunpowder and homemade guns.

John started grammar school at the age of 3 but his grandfather had already taught him a few letters. He progressed through a series of readers featuring heroic stories and poems, and remembered the sense of pride he felt in moving up to the next level. But this was not as important as maintaining a reputation for toughness:

“After attaining the manly, belligerent age of five or six years, very few of my schooldays passed without a fist fight, and half a dozen was no uncommon number. When any classmate of our own age questioned our rank and standing as fighters, we always made haste to settle the matter at a quiet place at the Davel Brae. To be a ‘gude fechter’ was our highest ambition, our dearest aim in life in or out of school. To be a good scholar was a secondary consideration, though we tried hard to hold high places in our classes and gloried in being Dux.” (p. 16) (more…)

What Does it Mean to be Successful?

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When I started researching famous home schoolers, my idea was to find out how they learned best and discover what their parents did or did not do that helped them. This quickly led me to the problem of what it means to be famous. Some people may be very successful in their careers, but not necessarily in other aspects of life. Thomas Edison is famous for his remarkable tenacity and innovation, but he was a lousy dad. General Douglas MacArthur was an effective leader, but excessively vain. Frank Lloyd Wright was a gifted architect, but also a gifted womanizer. I’m still interested in how these people realized their potential, but I wouldn’t hold up any of them as the perfect model for home schooling parents to follow.

With that in mind, I did find a few who were both successful in their profession and in their lives. Andrew Carnegie, John Burroughs, John Muir, Pearl Buck, Dave Thomas and others were not perfect, they were not deliriously happy, but they had acquired a certain amount of self knowledge and emotional intelligence that helped them make the most of life. I’ll be covering them more in future blogs, but for now I’d like to tell you about someone who was not home schooled.

I recently received the May 2009 issue of “The Costco Connection” (a magazine for Costco members). On the cover is a picture of Bill Gates Sr. and the headline, “Insights from the father of a famous son.” Editor Tim Talevich interviewed the elder Bill Gates about his new book Showing Up for Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime.

Gates claimed that he and his late wife Mary had no great method or philosophy in mind when raising their three remarkable children, but it is clear that the two set a wonderful example in their own lives. Gates was a prominent lawyer who regularly did pro bono law work and served on a number of community boards and committees. Mary Gates was also heavily involved with their Seattle community, volunteering for political campaigns, the local children’s hospital, and especially the United Way.

If the Gates family had any philosophy, it was simply to “show up.” They dedicated their time and energy to the family, community, school and work. The younger Bill remembers his mother always asking him at the dinner table how much of his allowance money he would be giving to the Salvation Army at Christmas. The children remember standing on street corners with their mother on election day, holding signs supporting a school levy.

Bill Gates, Sr. said, “A fair amount of what we did was based on the conviction that, as the expression says, ‘We’re all in this together’ – that we had something to contribute.”

The family had their own rituals and traditions that the grown children continue to this day. They enjoyed reading aloud to each other, playing all types of games, having family dinners on Sunday and wearing matching pajamas on Christmas. On vacations they joined family friends in cabins at a favorite waterfront resort.

Older sister Kristi said, “I don’t think anything that was done can explain my brother in his exceptional success. I think what was done can explain all of our understanding of our place in society and our role in giving back that was modeled a lot through our childhood.”

She remembers Bill Jr. as a bookworm, “He spent a lot of time reading; he spent a lot of time in his room. He was very opinionated about a lot of issues when he was a kid. He was sort of geeky.”

Bill’s younger sister Libby agreed, “I would definitely characterize him as a computer nerd.” As a teenager, Bill and his friend Paul Allen became so obsessed with computers that they would sneak out at night to work on them at the nearby University of Washington campus.

In the magazine’s interview with the younger Bill Gates, he said: “I learned so much from both my parents growing up. My parents were constantly exposing us to new ideas and encouraging us to learn, and, of course, they showed by example a deep commitment to family, work and friends, while giving back in ways that were effective and could make a difference.”

Besides putting their values to work, making volunteerism a family affair taught the kids about their wider world. In the words of Bill Gates: “I’m also very thankful that my parents exposed us to the world of adults from a very early age. This became especially important when I started my first business, and then again with Microsoft, because I was never intimidated. Even if someone was much older or had more experience, I felt comfortable discussing and debating important ideas, and, especially from my dad, learned to look at things from every angle.”

Bill and Mary Gates put their hearts into the things that mattered most to them: family, community, school and work. Their children learned from their example and have continued the family tradition. Kristi and Libby both have been very involved in a variety of philanthropic and civic activities, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which Bill Gates Sr. helped to found) is now the largest private philanthropy in the world.

It is not necessary to become wealthy to be a success. As Henry Ward Beecher said, “No man can tell whether he is rich or poor by turning to his ledger. It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich according to what he is, not according to what he has.” I would consider a strong character the best measure of success, because good character is fundamental to all of life’s pursuits: career, family, friends, community and personal fulfillment.

Building character is a subject for another day, but in the meantime Winston Churchill gives us something to think about: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Perhaps, as home schooling parents, we should be thinking more about what we give – whether in money, time or attention – and the example we set, than worrying about curriculum or test scores.