Archive for the ‘Curriculum’ Category

Win both the Mac and iPad versions of OLLY!

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OLLY for iPad Progress Report

OLLY for iPad Progress Report

If your paper planning system is getting unwieldy, here’s your chance to put your computer to the task – assuming you have a Mac or iPad of course.

The Intoxicated on Life blog is running a giveaway which will finish up on Oct. 16th, so be sure to get your entry in before that date!

Depth vs. Breadth

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Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller

 

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis

Eccentric visionary Buckminster Fuller believed that universities spend too much time graduating specialists when what we really need are generalists. Furthermore, he believed that all children are born with the natural instinct to think and learn holistically, and blamed society for interfering with this natural tendency to instead promote specialization (see his “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” for more info here).

C.S. Lewis however thought that we did a great disservice to children by trying to teach them about too many things instead of focusing on teaching a few things very well. He wrote:

“In those days a boy on the classical side officially did almost nothing but classics. I think this was wise; the greatest service we can do to education today is to teach fewer subjects. No one has time to do more than a very few things well before he is twenty, and when we force a boy to be a mediocrity in a dozen subjects we destroy his standards, perhaps for life.” (see citation below)

I think they both made good points, but in reality we need both generalists and specialists. We need generalists like Steve Jobs or Leonardo DaVinci who can make the connections between widely disparate subjects such as art and science, in order to see something new. But we also need people who are really, really good at what they do, even if that means they don’t know much about anything else. I don’t need or want my surgeon to be a generalist, I want him or her to be the best specialist I can find.

Fortunately, it seems that people naturally gravitate towards one or the other. Those kids who become fixated on a topic early on and never seem to want to do anything else are future specialists. Alexander Graham Bell, Pierre Curie, Albert Einstein, Walt Whitman and Louis Armstrong were all like that. If they were growing up today, we might have called them “geeks” in the sense that they were obsessed with their personal interests.

Those kids who seem interested in a wide range of topics but have trouble choosing just one might be future generalists. Thomas Edison, Agatha Christie, John Muir and Benjamin Franklin were like that.

So, how should you approach this dilemma as a homeschooling parent?

We don’t want to peg our kids as either specialists or generalists because we might be wrong, and it’s not really fair to label our kids with any preconceived notions that might limit what they believe about themselves.

I will propose two solutions . . . and the first is this: let your kids guide their own studies. If they are interested in a million different things, just roll with it and help them find the books or other resources they need to satisfy their curiosity. The same applies if they are only interested in one topic. Just keep feeding them more complex material as they need it.

This was the case with my son who is obsessed with programming and math. I had no idea what resources might be best for him to learn, but he knew. He researched all the books, tutorials, and online courses available to him and made up Amazon wish lists of bizarre titles, such as 3D Math Primer and Real-Time Collision Detection, for his birthdays. He definitely went into DEPTH with his programming studies.

We also covered other topics, because they were required by college admissions offices and my son wanted to go to college. However, these topics, such as English Composition, never fired him up the way programming did. This doesn’t mean he was completely oblivious to the outside world though. This is because of my second proposed solution: Living Books.

Living books, or those books written by talented authors with a passion for their subject, expose readers to meaningful context and information in a BROAD range of subjects.

One of my son’s favorite books was The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, not because he was particularly interested in serial killers but because of the historical context of the events surrounding the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. This led to an avid interest in Edison, Tesla and other inventors; along with other books set at the turn of the 20th century involving science or the rise of industry. This didn’t make him an expert on any of these subjects, but the books he read pulled together strands of world events, geography, business, science, ethics, history, economics, and others in a way that was enjoyable and memorable for him.

This doesn’t mean that every kid would like these sorts of books, but there are wonderful living books available for every possible interest. It’s just a matter of hunting them down. Here’s a few good online sources of inspiration:

The great thing about reading good books is that they introduce new ideas and topics to the reader or listener in a way that is meaningful, and thus more likely to be remembered than a textbook. Of course, a work of historical fiction will not be as thorough as a textbook, but if it leads your child to new interests or inspires deeper thinking, I’d say that’s a win.

Let your students choose which subjects they want to explore deeply, and rely on well-chosen living books to provide some breadth in their studies. I think Buckminster Fuller and C.S. Lewis would both be satisfied with this compromise.

 

Citation:  p 112-113, C.S. Lewis. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. New York 1955.

Path from “What do you want to be?” to Reality

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By John Kolko at MyEdu Corporation

By John Kolko at MyEdu Corporation

An online educational service called MyEdu recently published a study called “The Academic Journey,” which neatly summarizes their research, based on surveys of 300,000 college students, on the decision making process students use to finally settle on a career after graduation.

I found this very interesting, because the study highlights how stressful it is for students to choose a major, and then possibly change their major. A lot of kids just don’t know what they want to do. They’ve spent their high school years just trying to get in to college, and once they get there, the choices can be overwhelming. It seems that liberal arts colleges are well aware of this though, and try not to force a decision until just before a student’s Junior year. Until then, students concentrate on their General Education credits, taking classes in a variety of basic subject areas. But even then, how is a person supposed to know the best fit for them if they have only taken courses such as English, College Algebra, and Psychology?

I understand why liberal arts schools do this, because it helps to create reasonably well-informed citizens with higher level thinking and communication skills. But it takes time and a LOT of money to reach that graduation platform . . . then what?  Get a job? Go to graduate school? What if that new graduate still doesn’t know what he or she wants to do?

The problem is that our public school system works hard to get kids through the conveyor belt to a productive career. There are classes that must be taken, grades that must be earned, tests that must be passed, and extracurricular activities that must be done to prove one’s worth. It is a system that takes a lot of time, and ironically, the kids who do it well may be the ones who are most lost at the end. These kids worked so hard to please everyone else that they may have forgotten what it feels like to follow their own instincts.

Just look at all of the books and programs available to help us figure out what our talents or interests are. It’s kind of weird if you think about it. Why should any of us need help to figure out what would interest us? Yet we do need help, because we have forgotten. And all of those programs attempt to return our thoughts to a time before we cared what other people thought of us, before we were conditioned to follow the system.

I wonder how things would change if every kid had 3 more hours a day and the freedom to pursue their own interests? One of the findings of MyEdu’s study was that the students who had the opportunity to partake in a “Non-Traditional Academic Experience” seemed to find it very helpful. Here’s what they said:

“Some students described a non-traditional experience that dramatically changed their outlook on life and their academic trajectory. This experience – an internship, or a semester learning abroad in another country –seemed to either reinforce a good decision to change majors, or prompt a fresh set of introspection.”

This is the sort of thing that helps kids step outside the system, even for a short period of time, and experience real life. This is the sort of thing you can do anytime. Homeschooling, if led by the child’s interests, gives kids so much more time to be themselves. The system will still be there, and you should be aware of it, but live outside it. I mean really live – go places, meet people, read books, work, volunteer, take long walks, make things – and let your kids tell you who they are before anyone else tells them who they should be.

I’m not guaranteeing that self-directed learning will help every kid choose the right life path from the beginning. Sometimes kids will have to choose between several good options, or maybe they just need more time or experience, but at least they’ll have a head start.

What About Gaps?

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Crossing the Gap

Have you ever felt that surge of alarming doubt when your homeschooling friend talks about her ten-year-old’s rigorous curriculum, complete with 3-page written reports, Latin flash cards, accelerated math program, and violin lessons? Or how about when your neighbor gushes praise for the new local school science program or marching band?

Does it make you reassess your decision to let your daughter play “Sims,” draw horses, and read fantasy novels all day every day?

You would have to have nerves of Zen not to let this bother you. It may be true that your daughter will miss out on the benefits of Latin, violin, marching band, and all the rest. But it is also true that those other children will miss out on the benefits of “Sims” and unlimited hours of free reading. Is it an equal trade-off? That’s the big question. Students who receive a rigorous academic education may indeed be better prepared for further academic studies at college or university, particularly when compared with an average U.S. school experience. But if you know any teachers, or spend time reading the forums that teachers frequent, you’ll hear that two of the biggest indicators for student success are having parents that care and students that care.

Students that Care

It doesn’t matter how rigorous the curriculum is if the student doesn’t want to do the work. Teachers, or parents, might be able to convince or coerce a student to complete an assignment, but that doesn’t mean the student will retain the information. There will always be those achievement-oriented students, especially with helpful parents, who work hard to earn top grades and extracurricular attainments in order to impress college admissions offices, but how much are they really learning? And what about the rest of the students who are bored, or confused, or just getting along until graduation sets them free?

This is where the true benefit of self-directed education comes in. When children (or adults for that matter) have ownership over their own education, they will care more. They will pursue subjects that are interesting to them . . . or necessary in the pursuit of something else.

When Teddy Roosevelt was a boy, he was passionately interested in the outdoors, birds, animals, taxidermy, adventure stories, and naval history. His aunt, who taught Teddy at home, required a few other subjects, such as letter writing and French, but he was “behind” other boys of his age in mathematics. It wasn’t until he was fifteen, and eager to get into Harvard, that his father hired a tutor to help him prepare. He worked so hard (6-8 hrs a day) that he was able to do three years of mathematics in only two years.

Kids probably will not pursue subjects that you wish they would.

An 8-year-old would never say, “I want to learn more about language arts.” But they might pick up a book beyond their present reading ability and read it anyway. Or they might enjoy making up stories to play with their friends. Kids want to find answers to their own questions (“What does a leech look like?” or “Where would I look for a Sasquatch?”), and explore their favorite subjects in exhaustive detail. I had one son who was obsessed with deadly snakes (non-deadly snakes were of no interest), and he wanted to read every book we could find on the subject until his interest shifted to Aliens (deadly ones). Later, he moved through a procession of interests, including Greek Mythology, Yu-gi-oh cards, Tin Tin comics, fantasy novels, Shakespeare, weight-lifting, acting and singing. Along the way, he also learned how to read well, spell, write amazing prose, conquer math tests, memorize long poems, and identify logical fallacies.

Younger kids prefer concrete over abstract learning. They would rather build perfect squares out of Legos than learn how to square a number on a workbook page. This doesn’t mean they will never learn about square roots or grammar or the scientific method; it just means that they will learn it when they are ready for it. When they are ready for abstract concepts, it’s much easier for them to dive in and cover more material.

There will ALWAYS be Gaps

Even if your child went to the best college-prep school in the country, there would be “gaps” in the curriculum. There is no possible way we could teach children everything there is to know in a dozen years of school. There is no possible way any of us could learn everything there is to know in a dozen lifetimes. The thing to ask yourself is this: “Since we can’t learn everything, what are the most important things to learn?”

If your child doesn’t get to have a say in this, then she must decide . . . either to do as she is told or to rebel. With the first option, it’s hard to say how much the child is truly learning and she may forget what it feels like to be truly interested or curious. With the second option, the child might just reject any and all adult help, which will make independent learning very difficult.

If your child does get to have a say in what is most important to learn, and their opinions are truly honored, then a balance can be reached. Both parents and children will care. Children will feel a sense of ownership, but also know that they have their parents’ support and help whenever it is needed. It’s good to research college and/or job requirements together, but remember that sometimes a student’s true zest for learning can lead to places that neither one of you might expect.

Following along with someone else’s curriculum is like following along someone else’s trail. It may be a fine trail, but you will always end up where the other trailblazer meant it to go. Take the chance to go off trail and explore a little – or a lot. Teddy Roosevelt would approve.

How do your children feel about their curriculum? Did they help to choose it? Why? If it’s boring, do they understand or agree with the reason to stay with it?

The Easiest Way to Find Free Online Classes

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One of the key elements of a self-directed eduction, particularly for older kids and adults, is the ability to choose what, how, and when to learn something.

This is becoming easier every day, thanks to the proliferation of online tutorials, courses, and schools. Over the next few weeks, I plan to research these options to learn which ones might be the most useful for homeschooling families. In the meantime though, here’s a MASSIVE repository of links for free online courses that was brought to my attention:

Open Education Database

Open Education Database  This site compiles searchable links to over 4300 free courses in Arts, Business, Education, Engineering & Computers, Liberal Arts, Math, Medicine and Science offered by educational institutions all over the world. The other very nice thing about this site is that they provide reviews, rankings, and listings of online colleges and degree programs to help you find the right program for you. I did not find any courses targeted at kids; the level of difficulty ranges from high school to graduate level.

The people behind oedb definitely put a lot of work in to compiling this reference – they are the librarians of virtual education. You’ve heard of MIT OpenCourseware, Khan Academy, University of Reddit, and all the other biggies (here’s the post I wrote earlier about Stanford). But instead of searching through all those sites to find what you want, oedb has compiled it for you. It’s worth checking out!

Learning Math using Multiple Intelligences

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Howard Gardner first explained his theory of Multiple Intelligences in his book Frames of Mind (1983). Since then, educators everywhere have learned how important it is to discover how each individual student prefers to learn and solve problems. The eight types that Gardner has identified are: musical, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, spatial, intrapersonal, linguistic, and naturalist. The key thing to remember is that math doesn’t have to be taught or learned the same way. Mark Wahl’s book, Math for Humans: Teaching Math Through 8 Intelligences, shows us how.

To order any of Mark Wahl’s books, just visit his website: www.markwahl.com

Note: I’m not an affiliate or connected to Mark Wahl in any way -  just a happy customer.

Our New “Sputnik Moment” – More Scientists, Engineers, and Mathematicians

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Maybe it’s just my selective hearing, but it seems like everybody these days is talking about how desperately the United States needs to entice and retain more students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields, especially in response to our perceived technological race with China.* On Monday, I heard a very interesting talk by Ann Lee, author of What the U.S. Can Learn From China, in which she mentions China’s ability to churn out highly qualified math and science students. In contrast, statistics of U.S. graduates in 2009 show that we graduated roughly 89,000 visual and performing arts majors, but only 69,000 engineering majors, and 22,000 in the physical sciences or science technologies (see source). President Obama even alluded to this as our new “Sputnik Moment” in his State of the Union Address. Technological innovation and research are being hailed again as the answer to our economic, security, and way-of-life problems.

I’m not going to argue with this (yet*). It would be great if we could invent a long-lasting solar battery, learn to capture CO2 from the atmosphere, desalinate seawater cheaply and easily, find a cure for AIDS, etc. There are lots of ways that technology could really help us right now. The problem seems to be that not enough U.S. students are interested in or capable of rigorous study in these fields. So, naturally, policy-makers are thinking of every way possible to provide incentives for students, training for teachers, and more rigor in our national curriculum. It’s just ironic that we are paying so much attention to China’s school system in hopes of learning how to boost our kids’ STEM literacy while the Chinese are looking closely at our school system for ideas on how to boost creativity in their own students.

Nicholas D. Kristof noticed this in a recent New York Times article: “But this is the paradox: Chinese themselves are far less impressed by their school system. Almost every time I try to interview a Chinese about the system here, I hear grousing rather than praise. Many Chinese complain scathingly that their system kills independent thought and creativity, and they envy the American system for nurturing self-reliance — and for trying to make learning exciting and not just a chore.”  He wrote: “One friend in Guangdong Province says he will send his children to the United States to study because the local schools are a ‘creativity-killer.’ Another sent his son to an international school to escape what he likens to ‘programs for trained seals.’ Private schools are sprouting everywhere, and many boast of a focus on creativity.”

Isn’t that great? I love that the Chinese want their kids to be more creative, but it’s sad that so many of our kids are not prepared for the academic challenge of STEM fields. Perhaps the best solution is somewhere in the middle. Is it possible to build more rigor into our children’s education without squelching their creative spirit? I think so, and there are two big things that would help: giving kids ownership of their education, and  inspiring them with the best examples we can find.

1. OWNERSHIP – I’ve written before about my thoughts on systematic science vs. haphazard (self-directed) science education. The main point I want to emphasize here is that timing is everything. I disagree strongly with Nicholas Kristof’s opinion that the U.S. should start serious academic training in preschool, as they do in China. It is true that preschoolers are very malleable and easy to teach at this age, but they have far more important things to be doing with this precious time than getting a headstart on high school. Kids are BORN creative. If China (or the U.S.) wants their people to be creative, they don’t have to do anything special, they only have to avoid stopping it. That means letting children play, explore, touch, listen to stories, laugh, help, and be loved. As children mature, they are much better equipped to take on abstract studies of reading, writing, and arithmetic. As teenagers, they are more than able to take on rigorous studies if they are so inclined. The problem with pushing academics too early is that it kills curiosity. Once intrinsic motivation is lost, schools must rely on external motivators (rewards and punishment) to make up the difference. From what I have read about China’s education system, their rewards and punishments are more consequential than ours, and maybe that is why their kids take studying so seriously. But I think the best solution is to let kids direct their own education for their own reasons, because curiosity and ambition are powerful forces all on their own.

2. INSPIRING EXAMPLES – Passionate teachers, mentors, museums, science centers, movies, demonstrations, exhibits, and fairs like the Maker Faire are all wonderful ways to show kids the possibilities of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Reading well-written books by authors who are truly passionate about their subject is another way to spark interest. Textbooks are usually not inspiring because they are written by a committee whose sole purpose is to instruct. Even if you don’t live close to a metro area with museums, science centers, and events to visit, make an effort to find inspiring examples for your kids. Work with your homeschool group to find local mentors or teachers for workshops and field trips. Are there any blacksmiths in your area? Beekeepers? Interesting retirees? We once made friends with an elderly woman who power-walked through our neighborhood every morning. We gave her bags of oranges from our tree and she invited us over for lunch one afternoon so that her retired husband could have someone to talk to. It turns out that her husband was a retired astrophysicist. As we enjoyed the gourmet home-cooked Chinese feast our friend had prepared for us, her husband talked non-stop about his fascinating research on comets. None of us had ever been interested in comets before that day, but his passion was contagious. When we got home, my kids all wanted to look up comets on the Internet so we could see what he had been talking about. If I had tried to introduce comets as part of some science curriculum, there is very little chance it would have made any impression on my kids. But a real person with real enthusiasm is hard to beat.

Fortunately, we also have access to very interesting people via the Internet. In my next post, I’ll talk about STEM- related websites that might inspire your kids.

*I’ve also heard reports that recent college graduates with engineering degrees can’t get jobs, but I’ll save that for another post.

 

 

Learning at the Edge

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A. & E. Exploring the edge of a stream

Any naturalist knows that the most interesting place to look for things is at the edges. Where a field meets a forest or a river flows into the sea or where the reef hangs over deep water – those are the areas that are especially abundant. The edges are where species from two different ecosystems mingle and hide and hunt. There are even plant and animal species that exist only in these edge habitats.

Ecologists call this the “edge effect,” but I think the same phenomenon applies anywhere that two different areas intersect. For instance, physics is interesting, but exploring the edges of physics and art, or physics and psychology, or physics and theology, can be even more interesting. How about the intersection of martial arts and mythology, or architecture and music, or history and dance?

Everything in this world is attached to something else. By exploring the edges of seemingly unrelated fields of study, new ideas are born. In fact, that’s where all the great thinkers are. Buckminster Fuller lamented that our modern educational system concentrated too much on creating specialists when what we really needed were more generalists. By this he meant people who studied a variety of things and could make valuable connections between them. These are the Renaissance thinkers or polymaths like Leonard da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Maria Montessori, Rabindranath Tagore, Isaac Asimov, Steve Jobs, and others who are able to see the large patterns that others may not see.

We will always need specialists in every field, because they are able to study something deeply and make new discoveries based on years of intensive research. But we need generalists too; those who have spent time and effort to learn several subjects very well, and have made something of what they learned. Simply being well-informed isn’t enough. We all tend to dabble in different subjects, but a real polymath will put in some real time and effort on several subjects (not necessarily all at once), and come up with new insights or contributions.

This is one of the wonderful things about homeschooling. Because we have the freedom to customize our curriculum, our children can study the things that most interest them, for as long as they want. For science, my daughter only wanted to study anatomy and health. Every year for six years I would ask her, “Do you want to read this book about rocks? (or electricity, or space, or whatever)” and she would say no. She only wanted more books about muscles, bones, cells, blood, viruses, etc… It could be about animals or humans, sometimes plants, but certainly nothing that hadn’t once been alive.  We read books about Florence Nightingale and medieval medicine, constructed models, did Janice VanCleave experiments, drew pictures, counted heartbeats, looked for golden ratios in the human face, listened to trees with a stethoscope, looked at nematodes with a microscope, played the Somebody game, watched documentaries about the brain, evolution, animals, etc.  When we discovered animal carcasses while hiking, she would squat down to investigate the position of the bones and look for clues as to how the animal died and who had been eating it.

It’s amazing how many different topics you can touch on with a single abiding interest. She was happy for me to find interesting things for her to read and do as long as it was related to anatomy or health. Thinking about it now, I probably could have interested her in electricity if we had researched the body’s electrical field, or space exploration if we had looked at what astronauts did to stay healthy during missions (in fact, this was her favorite exhibit at the local Air and Space Museum).

The wonderful fun thing about learning is making connections – finding out how things are related. And to see that, you must go to the edges and look.

Try this: Bring to mind two or three things that you are very interested in, and find the connections between them.

How to Keep Track of Homeschool AND Life

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Life as a homeschooling mom can feel like a Cirque du Soleil show gone bad. There’s so much to keep track of:  errands, phone calls, laundry, budget, healthy meals, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, cleaning, exercise, helping kids with schoolwork, planning, recording, mothering, and nurturing other relationships. It’s crazy! I don’t know how anybody expects one person to do all this stuff, but somehow we do. I’ve always tried my best to stay organized and get things done. For years, my motto for getting stuff done has been: “Never stop working.” But that’s not very helpful is it? I really don’t work all the time, although sometimes it feels like I do. It would be much worse if I didn’t find a way to keep track of everything.

In my last post, I talked about getting yourself personally organized, but here I’m going to share with you some of the ways I organized my homeschooling days when my kids were younger. My biggest friend was a 3-ring binder that lived on the dining room table where we spent 80% of our days. In that binder, I kept my journal, reference pages (book lists, homeschool tips, community/extracurricular info), and my planning pages. I had a section for long term planning, with home-made forms like this:

 I made up a grid like this for each half of the year so that I could roughly plan out when we would do certain things. Everything revolved around unit studies, potential field trips, and the activities of our homeschool group. While this grid gave me a nice overview of how things fit together, I used plain old notebook paper to plan out what books we would read for the different subjects, like this:

So, that’s what I keep in my binder for long-range planning. But in the front of the planner, I kept more home-made forms to help me get through the week. I made it so facing pages would cover one week of homeschooling, to-do lists, routines and rudimentary menu planning. I changed the forms as often as I needed to reflect changes in our schedule and only printed out 5 weeks worth at a time.

 

You can see from the hole punches on the sides how these pages faced each other. I purposely left the dates blank in the computer so that I wouldn’t waste paper printing out unnecessary weeks.  For the life of me, I can’t remember what program I used to make these forms, but it was probably MS Word because I didn’t have any fancier software in those days.

Even though I tried to plan ahead, the kids didn’t always like what I had planned, or life got in the way, so I also kept “Learning Logs” to record what we actually did each day. Since my boys usually did the same thing, I kept one log for them, and a separate log for my younger daughter. I printed these in landscape mode for my binder, but I’m showing you an abbreviated example turned right-side-up to make it easier to see:

These homemade forms worked great for me when the kids were little, but when my oldest entered 7th grade, and we moved to a state with stricter homeschool requirements, I started playing around with “Homeschool Tracker” on the computer to do my planning. In some ways it was easier, but it was far less forgiving or fun to use. When I switched to a Mac computer, I couldn’t find any homeschool software for that platform so I’ve been making my own. I’m still a big fan of 3-ring binders, but when you need to record grades, assemble transcripts and compute GPA for older kids, it’s kind of nice to have it all on the computer.

Keeping Kids on Track

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I know this sounds like a really strange topic from someone who claims that self-education is the best way to go. “Keeping kids on track” sounds like something a school board would care about, but bear with me, because I’m talking about a completely different approach.

In my last post about getting kids to try hard, I talked about the importance of ownership. Anyone, including kids, will work harder for something that they feel committed to, something that they created or envisioned. It also helps to have a personal stake in the outcome. Good leaders know this. They try to give their people as much creative control and autonomy as possible, because it makes the work more satisfying. The same is true for household work or homeschool work. But kids are still kids, and they don’t have much experience with time management or breaking a large job into manageable bits. So, there are ways for you to help give a little structure to support their vision, without taking over or becoming the typical “boss.”

For kids under the ages of 7-8, I really do not believe there is any reason to impose a formal curriculum. I explain all the research and reasons for this in my book, but the main reason is that children are natural learners, and given a warm, nurturing authentic atmosphere, they will learn a great deal of important stuff all by themselves. Most of the “early learning” topics taught to young children in their first 3 years of school (preschool, kindergarten, 1st), could be taught in about 3 months to a child who is old enough. I believe the real reason children are being pushed into early academics is because of parental anxiety and/or competitiveness, thus the term, “Head start,” which seems to imply some kind of race. Having children fill out worksheets matching the big triangle to the little triangle or the mama duck to the duckling are unnecessary. Elaborate phonics programs are unnecessary. Those things give the illusion of learning, because they represent “school,” something that an outside authority has prescribed and can easily measure.

There are so many more important things kids should be doing at this age, usually those that involve their whole bodies: building, climbing, running, playing, throwing, investigating, rolling, swimming, painting, pouring, hiding, seeking, singing, dancing, stomping, cleaning, laughing, visiting, and helping. When they are tired, that’s a good time to snuggle up on the couch and read aloud. Answer their questions as best you can, listen to them, play games, and take lots of pictures. That’s it. The only “keeping on track” you may want to do for this age is journaling, scrapbooking, and perhaps keep a list of books read, places visited, etc. *Note* If your young kids want to learn how to read or anything else, that’s perfectly fine, but there is no need to push it. If you live in a state that requires some kind of proof of your children’s learning, I believe that you can make up a satisfactory portfolio with just your lists of books, field trips and perhaps a list of skills learned; but do check with your local homeschool group for more advice.

Kids aged 8-12 are much more capable of settling down a bit and thinking abstractly, but they still prefer lots of hands-on learning. If they have not been burned out by school yet, they should still have a healthy sense of curiosity, so let their curiosity guide your curriculum. Make a list of stuff they are interested in. Take them to curriculum fairs, used book sales, or the library and let them pick what appeals to them. For hands-on activities, it’s nice to have an assortment of books available that your kids can flip through and put sticky notes on the things they want to do. This is really my favorite age for homeschooling because it is so diverse and creative.

Unit studies work well for this age, because you can concentrate on the subjects that really interest your kids. Talk to your kids. Let them know that this is their time to explore and that there are no absolute rules. If there is something you really want them to learn, just explain your thoughts to them. Together, come up with a learning plan. Pull out a blank grid calendar with all the months of the year on two pages (6 months on one 8.5X11 paper). Show them where you are now on the calendar and mark down upcoming events and vacations. Let them help you pencil in when to do each unit. The length of the unit will depend on the depth you plan to study each topic; it could be one day or one month or more. I’ve written more about planning a unit study here. Unit studies, whether you buy them pre-made, or design them yourself (my favorite) are nice because you can include math, reading, writing, art, geography, music, social studies, science and life skills all in one nice holistic package. Plus, unit studies can be done with multiple ages at once, so it takes advantage of the group learning dynamic. They do take a bit more time to put together, but I enjoyed it because of the creative challenge. If the thought of preparing a unit study makes you cringe though, there are plenty of free and low-priced resources online.

Another option is a literature based curriculum, similar to Charlotte Mason or the program offered by Sonlight. The idea is to focus more on quality literature and use that as inspiration for writing, social studies (map work), and other supporting projects. Math is generally supplemented with a dedicated curriculum. Science topics are also taught through literature or “living books,” as Charlotte Mason called great books. There is the danger here of imposing so much curriculum that your kids might start to rebel. I still believe it is important to give your kids a lot of control over their own learning. If they don’t like the books you have picked out, pick something they might like better. If they hate the math curriculum, look for options. Include them in the decision-making. You may have to do the initial research, to find out what is available and offer suggestions, but let them have input. Then, when you have chosen your resources, take the time to break down each resource into manageable chunks and assign to the days or weeks you have available. It doesn’t have to be fancy – a simple list on notebook paper will work – or you may want to use computer software (like mine) or downloadable planning forms. Your kids will think this is boring and have no interest in helping you. That’s OK. In fact, you may find this boring too. It really helps though to have the year laid out before you. Be careful not to overschedule. Remember that it’s far more important for kids to explore their own interests, for however long it takes, than it is to cover everything. There are no rules, especially for this age. The only reason to make these plans now is to help give you a direction to follow, even when you can’t remember what you did yesterday. It’s OK to skip stuff, or move things around. If your kids start to dislike the idea of “homeschool”, you may want to reconsider what you are doing. If they begin to think that education is something done to them, instead of something they pursue for their own reasons, then they have lost ownership of the process. And it is tough to get that back once it is lost.

Another approach you may consider is a Montessori style environment, where a wide variety of self-correcting learning materials are prepared ahead of time and available within reach of the children. The children are then free to choose whatever interests them and work until they are satisfied. However, the amount of preparation and work space you would need for something like this is intensive, so I would only recommend this is as cooperative effort among a group of like-minded families.  You could also decide to use Montessori type materials for just some of the subjects you hope your child will take an interest in, such as math and science. There are a lot of wonderful hands-on materials for math and science that can be made or purchased. Again, these will take some effort, but if you have a spouse or other family member willing to help you, these items can be a lot more fun than typical textbooks. One resource to check out is TOPS for science. The difference here in using hands-on materials vs. a unit study or literature approach is that instead of planning lessons, you are preparing materials. There is no schedule for when your child will use the materials, you just show them how to use something when they are ready. Perhaps you could have a check-off sheet to show when they have mastered a certain skill. In this situation, there is no need to “keep” the kids on track, only to keep notes of what they worked on each day.

If you have a child who is particularly left-brained and wants to have a more formal curriculum, that’s fine. You can research the possibilities and let him or her choose the most appealing. This alternative is probably the easiest for most parents, because it involves the least amount of preparation. All you will need to do is check their work and make sure they stay on schedule. But in my experience, there’s not many kids who love this approach, at least not for very long. You may have to resort to external motivation to keep them going, which will only yield short term results.

This post is already longer than I intended, so I will wait for the next one to talk about keeping preteens and teens on track. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions. How do you keep your kids on track?