Archive for the ‘Unschooling’ Category

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.

Creative Rebellion

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I love serendipity! I’ve been thinking about this blog post for some time now, and just came across this video in my Facebook feed:

This video captures so well what I found in my research of famous homeschoolers. All of the people I studied had an independent streak, even as children. Some of the adults around them, particularly teachers, called them trouble-makers, or doubted that those “difficult” children would ever amount to anything. This is what happened to Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Mary Leakey, Quentin Tarantino, Walt Whitman, Ansel Adams, and countless others.

It can be very hard for some adults, set in their ways and opinions, to see the value in eccentricity, especially when all they see is boredom, inattention, and disruption. Teaching a classroom full of children is a TOUGH job. I certainly wouldn’t want to do it, especially when someone else is telling you when, what, and how to teach.

The thing is, kids shouldn’t have to be troublemakers or rebels. We are the ones who make them so, by attempting to force them into a one-size-fits-all system. Our current educational system virtually guarantees that only the most independent, feisty, and stubborn children will make it through with their original creative instincts intact. The rest of us, the more timid and obedient ones, are easier to mold into what society expects from us.

But what if we had an educational system that honored each child’s unique interests and learning style, with no pressure to become something they are not? There would be no reason to rebel.

It would be hard for public schools to do this because they have so much pressure to be accountable, and not enough money to hire the teachers that would be needed. But private schools and home schools can do it!

I am assuming, since you are reading this post, that you are either homeschooling your kids or thinking about homeschooling. If I had just one message for you it would be this: don’t try to re-create public school at home.

New homeschooling parents are understandably worried, and not sure what to do, so they fall back on their own school days as a model to follow. Public schools have become so much a part of our common culture, everyone just assumes that school is the best place for learning to happen, or that the way schools teach is the only way for students to learn. But from the examples shown in the video above and from the famous homeschoolers I studied, it’s clear that the greatest creative breakthroughs occurred when people busted out of the societal box that held them in.

Creativity requires a certain amount of freedom to thrive. If that freedom is taken away, the feistiest among us will rebel to get it back. Even homeschooling kids will rebel if home is just like school. Maintaining good order and discipline for behavior, chores, manners, etc. is a great thing for parents to do, but learning and creativity are very personal endeavors. No two kids will have exactly the same interests or learning styles, so trying to follow a prescribed curriculum will be hit-or-miss. The best thing to do is create a “curriculum” largely dependent on each child’s inclinations.

There will be gaps in what your child learns, but there are also gaps in what a public school child learns. There are always gaps, because none of us knows everything there is to know, and we never will. Learning is a lifelong pursuit. That’s why the best thing we can do for our kids is keep their learning instincts alive, show them how to find what they need, and not squash their natural creative spirit. Let them choose what, when, and how to learn; follow their interests; and solve their own problems. You’ll still keep plenty busy helping them find the right resources and mentors, taking them places, listening, reading aloud, playing with them, answering questions, and otherwise guiding them along their way to adulthood. But you don’t have to be the mean ol’ schoolmarm.

You will be amazed at what they do, even without grading or coercion. Give freedom a chance!

How can “Unschoolers” Plan Ahead?

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Summer, for many homeschooling families, is the time to plan for the school year ahead. Tis the season for dog-eared and highlighted homeschool catalogs, used curriculum swaps, and agonizing decisions over which methods to use. It’s kind of fun actually.

But what should you do if you’re more of an unschooler – someone who doesn’t believe in coercing kids to learn stuff?  All those lovely curriculum plans, with daily to-do lists, learning objectives, and directions to read aloud don’t really work for you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t plan ahead. Unschooling doesn’t mean that everything has to be spontaneous. It just means that the child should be given the freedom to direct how, what, and when they learn.

We as parents help make that happen by providing our time, resources, experience, and attention. Some people might be fine with winging it everyday, but for the rest of us (kids included), it’s nice to have a little structure. It’s also nice to have time to get things ready. If your child really wants to take up rocketry, its not something you can just pull out of the closet the very day he mentions it. He needs to research what is involved and what equipment is needed beforehand.

So, don’t be afraid to plan ahead. Just because your child is in charge of their own learning doesn’t mean your days must wait on their whims. Of course, the process of planning will be different depending on the age of your kids, but here’s what I recommend:

For Younger Kids

Structure their days but let the year evolve with their interests. Younger children seem to benefit from a regular schedule, even if the blocks of time are understood to be free play. Set up times for meals, chores, reading aloud, outside time, free play, art (this is when the messy supplies come out), naps, games, errands, play dates, field trips, outside classes and anything else you normally do. Some of this time involves you, some of it doesn’t. Let them choose the books to read and games to play, but feel free to suggest something you think they will like. Their interests may swing wildly over the course of a year but you can accomodate them with trips to the library or making/borrowing materials as needed.

If you are really ambitious, you might consider making ahead some hands-on Montessori type materials to have ready for your kids to work with if they are interested. Kids are usually so eager to learn and try new things that they will gobble up whatever you give them. I’ve always thought that this would be a good project for a homeschool group: have each family make one or two quality Montessori type items, then everyone regularly swap materials.

The key with scheduling your days is to leave plenty of time for outdoors and free play. Don’t over-schedule outside activities or you’ll spend all your time in the car, and everyone gets grouchy.

For Older Kids

Help set goals for their year but let them structure their days. Once kids are old enough to start planning ahead (you’ll know when because they’ll start doing it), make a list together of all the things they would like to learn or do. Don’t judge or worry about how to do all of it in one year, just brainstorm. If they have trouble getting started, you can remind them of the things they are already interested in. You can even suggest things you think they will like. If there is a class at the Nature Center or upcoming exhibit at the Museum, throw it out there. If your child likes making things, let them peruse books of projects and put sticky notes on the things they want to make. Write down the books they want to read. If they don’t want to commit to anything or have only three items on the list, that’s OK.

Then, once you have the master list, you can either work with your child to prioritize and plan it out, or do it by yourself. In my experience, kids really aren’t interested in this level of planning and would just as soon have you do it. My caution here is DON’T OVERDO it. Just because they made the list doesn’t mean you can go crazy with it. It just means you can start researching and collecting the best books and materials within your budget, and block out times when you can go through items on your child’s list.

One of my sons wanted to make cheese from scratch when he was around 8 years old. I had no idea how to do this but found a cheese-making kit online, and set aside a day to do this with him. It wasn’t something he could have done alone because it required a huge pan of milk on the stove and keeping track of lots of steps. In fact, it wasn’t something I could have done alone, but together we had a great time.

The point is that making cheese was on my son’s list, but I had to plan ahead and purchase a few supplies to make it happen. You know best when you will have time to spend the whole day making cheese, or driving to the beach, or building a tree house. I usually started with a yearly grid of 6 boxes per page labeled with each month. I penciled in certain projects to go with the month that made the most sense. I tried to group things together, including books to read, making our own loose unit studies. Once the big things were on my yearly grid, I planned out more details a month or two in advance. This gave me time to find, borrow or buy things we would need.

As for structuring our days, I still had meals at the same time, and I spent the morning doing things with them, but after that it varied from day to day depending on what my kids were up to. Sometimes they needed my help, sometimes they didn’t. Some days we were gone all day on a field trip or other outside activities.

For Teens

Teens have to start looking even farther into the future, particularly if they might want to go to college. Here is where you shift into “Academic Advisor” mode to help them plan out studies that would satisfy college admissions offices. For more information on this, please click here. But if they are not at all interested in college prep, don’t push it. There are lots of other wonderful things they can be doing with their time. Get them out of the house meeting people and doing worthwhile things as much as possible.

Enjoy your summer, play with your kids, and don’t feel guilty about planning out your unschooled school year.


How Do You Know if Your Homeschooling is Working?

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This is my son's way of letting me know he is not excited.

It’s getting toward the end of the school year now, and you might be looking anxiously at all the chapters/lessons left to be done in your textbooks. Some of you might be administering mandatory tests for your kids (and wondering if you covered everything). You may notice with chagrin how much of your to-do list for the year never got done. This is a perfectly normal phenomenon. Please do not be alarmed.

But, this is a good time to ask, “Is my homeschool working?”

Here’s how you know. A successful homeschool is not measured in pages completed, facts memorized, or improved test scores. It is best measured in perfect moments of lucid learning. And this isn’t really that hard to do. We are never going to be able teach our children everything – there will ALWAYS be things that your child has never covered. There are endless things that we adults don’t know anything about either. More important is the desire to keep learning, and the ability to do it. Effective education is not about stuffing kids’ heads full of facts. Real learning comes from inside each person: making connections, observations, and personal discoveries.

Think about the last time your child was completely absorbed in something, or the time her eyes lit up with some revelation, or the time he couldn’t wait to show you something he figured out. Those are the moments that really matter. Some homeschoolers call them “Aha!” moments. When our kids are charged up and sublimely focused, everything just seems to happen all at once. This is when learning is real – not just busywork that will soon be forgotten.

I don’t mean to imply that all your days should be filled with starry-eyed wonder (if so, then we would all fail), but it’s the direction you should be aiming for. I think Pareto’s 80/20 Principle applies here. Have you heard of this? The basic idea is that 80% of your outcomes come from 20% of your inputs. This rule seems to work eerily well for everything from economics to time-management. I am suggesting here that 80% of your child’s true learning is coming from only 20% of your efforts. The trick is to figure out which 80% constitutes true learning for your child, and to figure out which 20% of your efforts are actually helping (keep in mind that in this case, “helping” might really mean leaving your child alone). Then you can focus more on what works, and cut back on your wasted efforts.

To figure out your 80/20, I highly recommend keeping a journal about your days together. Be sure to note the interesting conversations, questions, and current concerns of your kids. What are they preoccupied with? What is boring? What kind of games do they play? What books do they want to read? Did they have any “Aha!” moments? You will learn SO MUCH by keeping a journal, because it forces you to observe and reflect. You don’t have to wait till next year to get started, just start right now. Record your summer too – kids learn all year long.

If you don’t write these things down, you will forget. Trust me. Just like everyone always tells new parents to “Take lots of pictures!” or “Enjoy it now because they grow so fast,” I am saying that you will forget where your days went. Your kids will forget too. That’s why when Grandma asks, “So what have you been learning in homeschool?” your child will say, “Nothing.” “But hold on,” you say, and whip out your journal, “we listened to Redwall on tape and you made a comic strip about Martin the Warrior. We’ve been letterboxing with Mike and Robbie and you learned how to use a compass, and tell the difference between a Red Oak and a White Oak.  Remember when you realized that two 1/4 cups equals 1/2 cup of water? And what about . . .” “But that’s not homeschooling,” your child argues, “we do that stuff anyway.” Then you have to explain to everyone in the room that just because it doesn’t look like school, doesn’t mean you are not really learning.

Journaling helps you remember what you did more than a week ago.  You will also realize how rich your days truly are, and how much learning gets done despite the unfinished workbooks. With time, you will indeed know if your homeschooling is working.

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.

Should kids keep illustrated journals?

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Illustrated journals seem like such a good idea for kids, right? It’s a good excuse for building writing and drawing skills, not to mention budding scientific observation.  Wouldn’t we all be proud to have a child like Teddy Roosevelt, who kept detailed journals filled with his sketches of birds, mammals, and other creatures, sometimes even labeled with their Latin names?  Charlotte Mason, that wonderful Victorian era champion for homeschooling, was also an enthusiastic advocate for children keeping nature notebooks.

It seemed like a reasonable idea to me, especially since I enjoyed keeping illustrated journals myself. The problem was, when I introduced the idea to my oldest son Jesse, he had absolutely no interest in drawing anything from real life. He liked to draw, and would often sit for an hour with a piece of paper, illustrating a space battle while narrating the scene aloud (with plenty of explosions and sound effects):


Robot Battle by Jesse, age 10

This kid was obsessed with monsters, aliens, space villains, and ray guns. Running around outside was fun, but he wasn’t admiring the flora and fauna for what it was, because in his mind, trees were fortresses and rocks were spaceships. There were monsters hiding behind every bush and he carried his homemade stick saber wherever he went. Occasionally, he would stop short to admire a spider spinning her web or tadpoles swimming near the edge of the pond, but drawing those scenes would have ruined the enjoyment. No, as soon as he was back inside, this is what he would draw:

Space Battle by Jesse, age 8


I was happy that he was so imaginative, but sometimes I worried a bit that he didn’t want to do anything “academic.” Write a paragraph on tadpoles or “What I did today?” Forget it. Writing thank you notes was required, and he saw that it was important, so that was OK with him. Otherwise, the only type of writing he might do involved dire peril or good vs. evil, and that was only to keep Mom happy. Interestingly, it wasn’t until Jesse was around 13 and saw a friend’s sarcastic birthday letter, that he really started writing on his own. His friend’s letter opened the possibility of humorous writing, and Jesse has never looked back. He’s actually a wonderful writer, and now, at the age of 19, he’s working on a degree in communications, with the dream of writing for television.

Looking back on all of Jesse’s drawings now, I can see that he was essentially keeping a journal. But it was a journal of his imagination. It satisfied something deep inside of him that I did not need to interfere with. He enjoys nature, but does not want to be a scientist or naturalist. He enjoys drawing and art, but does not want to become an artist. What he really wants to be is what he already is – a story teller. His early drawings were just stories that he told himself. Later, when he was ready to put the stories in words to share with others, he started writing. Now, it makes him happy, and he can spend hours working on one of his fantasy novels or screenplays.

Illustrated journaling or nature notebooks can be a fine idea if kids like it, but if they don’t, then it’s just another artificial school thing that must be done to please an adult. I suspect that the kids who enjoy nature notebooks, like Teddy Roosevelt, are naturally inclined to be naturalists, or at least observers.

My daughter is an observer. She could draw amazing pictures at a very young age because she actually looked at what she was drawing, but she still preferred imaginative drawings. She was not at all interested in her nature notebook, but drew countless fairies, babies, animals and story scenes in her large sketchpads (she didn’t like being cramped). One time she was inspired to tell a story, comic book style:

The Day I Saw a Garter Snake by Emma, age 7


She wasn’t using her best drawing skills in this example, because she was more interested in telling the story. She first drew the major plot elements, then told me the words to write in each frame. This was a very satisfying project for her because the event (seeing the snake) was so important and thrilling that she really needed to express it. Just like her brother, her drawings reflected what she was thinking about. They reflected what was important to her. My kids didn’t need me to tell them what to draw, or even to give suggestions. Even as she got older, Emma didn’t like art project books because she preferred to create her own projects. Now, at age 15, she is attending a charter school for the arts and must work on the assignments that the drawing/painting teacher gives her. But most of the assignments are about technique and the students are free to choose their own subjects as long as they practice the right technique. Plus, it was Emma’s choice to attend this school, and she gives it 110%.

My instincts and experience tell me that forcing kids to do a particular kind of journaling is not necessary and may even be counterproductive. It is fine for us to do our own journaling or nature notebooks; maybe our kids will wish to do something similar. But don’t require it. Just pay attention to what it is they really want to do. You might learn something interesting.

Keeping Teens on Track

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In my last post, I talked about keeping kids on track, which is really more about keeping track of what they do. It’s far more effective to let kids direct their own education than it is to hold them to anyone else’s timetable or curriculum. Planning ahead is OK as long as your kids are involved with the planning process. But for older kids and teens, planning ahead is essential.  Again, your kids must be involved with the planning process. They must own it. Everyone is responsible for his or her own education. You play a vital role as academic adviser, counselor and administrator, but you can’t make anybody learn anything. If you want your kids to learn things, it is really more effective to give them control. That means you will have to give up control. There’s no pretending here. If you say,”It’s up to you what you will study, but you need to include ___, ___, ___, ___, and ___,” then your kids are smart enough to know that it really isn’t up to them. You have to be willing to let them skip math or writing or whatever it is, with no guilt trips, and then they will know you are serious about giving them ownership.

Listen to your teens, take them places, find them resources, mentors or classes in subjects they are interested in. Help them find and decipher information about careers and college admissions. Let them work and learn to take care of themselves as much as possible. Give them responsibility, and give them the freedom to learn what they will. This sounds crazy to some people, because the teens they know would sleep all day and play video games all night if given the opportunity. But this is only because the teens don’t think of education as something they do for themselves; they think of it as something done to them. It’s a little bit like the difference between starting your own business and going to work at some indifferent job for a paycheck. People often work much harder for their own businesses than they will for someone else, even if they are conscientious workers, because they OWN it.

So, how do you keep teens on track if they own the track?

First, as I’ve said before, let your kids be involved with the planning. Sit down with them and make a list of the things they want to study. Go to some college websites and print out lists of recommended high school courses, extracurricular activities, and testing requirements (pay attention to homeschool requirements in particular because they may be different from public school applicants). Even if your child is not interested in going to college, it’s helpful for them to know what might be required if they change their mind. If they have some other profession in mind, like the military or a trade, help them find out what type of educational attainments would be expected. Together, make a master plan, in pencil, of your child’s remaining homeschool years. If he or she will need to take two or three years of foreign language to be accepted into a college, it’s better to find out early than it is while you’re filling out applications.  You should also make note of what your state homeschool laws require. Armed with this information, your student should be able to see what they would need to do to move forward, even if they are not interested in a particular subject. When kids are younger, education can be mostly interest-driven, but as they get older, they are able to make choices based on necessity. But that doesn’t mean they have to forgo their interests! The great thing about homeschooling is time and flexibility. There are ways to combine personal interests with “required” courses, so be sure to write down personal interests.

After you’ve made up a rough master plan for the long-term, focus on the year ahead. You can use a unit study or literature based approach again, but frankly, if your kids are planning to go to college, it’s so much easier to make up courses the way other schools do. Then, when you are creating high school transcripts for them, colleges will find it much easier to understand what your kids studied. So, take the to-do items on your student’s list and turn them into courses. When my son wanted to learn about forces, vectors and motion for game design, we made a course called, “Physics for Game Design.” When he wanted to learn about banking, personal finance, and our economic crash, we combined all of those topics in a course called, “Economics.”

Once you have the courses figured out, you need to figure out what resources will be needed. My kids were perfectly happy to have me figure this part out. I love researching books and they usually trust me to pick out something they’ll like. But I always talk to them before ordering anything. When picking out math curriculum, I’ll narrow the field to two or three possibilities, and they will take sample lessons from the different companies to decide which style they prefer. Sometimes, my kids already knew which books they wanted to read, and then we made a course out of those books. One of my sons loves computer programming, and since those books are so expensive (yet impossible to find in any library), he keeps a wish list for his birthday and Christmas. There’s no way I could pick these books out because they make no sense to me, but he does his own research to find the best ones. My other son loves theatre, Shakespeare, mythology and writing so it was easy enough to combine these interests into one course called “Language Arts” and let him pick which books and plays he wanted to read anyway.

Once the courses and resources are figured out, it really helps to break everything down into a schedule, either by day or week. How much of each resource/book will you need to cover? If certain courses are required, such as Geometry or American Government, it helps to look at your state curriculum standards (look online) to see what skills or topics students are expected to learn in these courses. If required courses are less defined, such as “Social Studies” or “Fine Arts,” then you can be more flexible when deciding what to include in each course. Figure out what could realistically be accomplished in one week for each course. Or, even better, let your student figure it out. This could be done on notebook paper, any of those downloadable planning forms, or homeschool planning software.

Here’s where the “Keeping Teens on Track” really comes into play. If your students have been involved with planning their own courses, and assigning lessons for each week, it should be up to them to mark off when items are completed. They need to have access to these plans, to be able to see what is ahead and how much more needs to be done. Some courses we did together because it was more fun that way. We would take turns reading aloud, watch documentaries, and have long discussions about the subject at hand. For other courses, like math, they would get in the habit of doing it at a certain time, and then we would all grade their assignments afterward. I made it clear to my kids that I wasn’t going to bug them about getting stuff done, but they asked me to help remind them. Plus we had so many conversations throughout the day about stuff they were reading or doing that it seemed to naturally keep them going.

It seems counterintuitive, but I found that the more I backed off my kids, the more responsible they became. Sometimes, they wouldn’t do math for days because they were more interested in finishing a series of books or a new video game. But then they would do two assignments in a day or work on the weekend to get caught up. When they started taking courses at our local community college, I didn’t help them at all. They would come home and tell me about what they were doing, but they never had trouble adjusting to a classroom environment or more formal homework assignments. In fact, they did very well.

If you have given your teens freedom, but they still don’t seem to be doing anything constructive, try to reconsider what you believe is constructive. If they are playing video games all day, play with them and see what it is all about. Be patient and listen to your kids, without judgement. Expect them to work and take care of themselves as much as possible. Do things with them, get them out of the house, help them find mentors and volunteer opportunities. They won’t be able to resist learning and growing – but it might not look like what you were expecting. It will be better.

Learning to Read

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New home-schoolers are often intimidated by the idea of teaching their kids to read.  They know it is vitally important and therefore must be complicated to teach properly.  I think it would be complicated to teach to a classroom full of squirmy six-year-olds of varying levels of readiness (my heart goes out to those poor teachers).  But it really isn’t that hard to teach your own.  It’s actually pretty fun – assuming you like to read yourself.

To begin with, it’s wonderful snuggling up on the couch or outside on a blanket, reading piles of delightful children’s books.  Every day – not just before bed – read to your kids and enjoy the expressions on their faces and the comments they make.  Don’t make them hold still.  They can roll on the floor, play with blocks, draw or do whatever quiet thing they like and still enjoy the stories – but they will usually want a front-row seat to see the illustrations.

Eventually your child will want to know what you are doing when you read.  They may ask questions about letters or words – then you know they are ready to start learning.  Not all kids are ready at the same time and it has nothing to do with intelligence so don’t worry about it.  In fact, I am fairly convinced that many of the so-called reading disabilities (apart from genuine dyslexia) are caused by forcing kids to read before they are ready.  For more info on this, read Raymond and Dorothy Moore’s excellent book, Better Late Than Early. (more…)

The Original Famous Homeschooler List

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If you would like to see a comprehensive list of famous homeschoolers, broken down by occupation, check out this site:

The site is owned by a homeschooling mother and librarian named Teri Ann Berg Olsen.  It appears that she was the original author of the list of famous homeschoolers that is now floating around the internet (without giving credit to her unfortunately).  She has been continually updating the list since 2000, so there are a LOT of names!

For a great list of famous self-educated people, see this site: 

If you see anyone interesting on these lists, I highly recommend reading their biography.  It is so comforting to know that even great people are perfectly ordinary, with ordinary problems just like you.  It will give you courage – especially if you’re questioning your decision to home school!

McMillin Family Homeschool – Math

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Math is one of those subjects that all but the most devout unschoolers tend to require of their children. Like music or dance, it is usually best learned in sequential steps from basic to advanced. But if the child does not want to learn math, what is the relaxed yet anxious parent to do? I have read stories of unschooled youngsters forgoing textbook math until they decide to take SAT tests, then learning everything they need to know in a matter of months instead of years. I have heard of kids digging into math out of necessity to complete some project such as building a chicken coop or starting a home business. For me, I decided that math was too important to leave to chance (what if my child failed the SATs someday and blamed me for not getting into college?)

I thoroughly researched all the available math programs and let my son choose the one he thought would be best. When the manipulative-based book arrived in the mail, all went well for the first day or so, until my son decided that math was confusing and boring. I tried encouraging words and gentle humor, hot cocoa and soothing music, but after 2 weeks he was in a rage over every page. He simply could not learn anything – REFUSED to learn anything in that frame of mind. I talked to him about the importance of math but he was not impressed. I tried another math program. It made no difference to him because he had already decided that he was no good at math. Finally, in desperation, I found books full of math games and hands-on activities. Success! He enjoyed all games – the more physical and imaginative the better. I also did a lot of research on learning styles that year and found ways to teach him math without him even knowing it.

We didn’t crack open a textbook for four more years. By then, he was much more mature and aware that he was behind his peers in math, so he wanted to get caught up with them. Now, at age 17, he still doesn’t like math, but he makes himself do it (not me!) for his own reasons. And yes, he did catch up. He knows he wants to go to college and wants to do well in the SAT tests.  My fears that he would blame me were unjustified because he “owns” his own education.  He knows it is his responsibility, not mine.  I think it was important for me to back off in the younger years because it became his choice, not his duty nor his punishment, to learn math.  Fortunately, the years of just playing with numbers also helped him overcome his fear of textbooks and developed his intuitive understanding of how math works.

My worries over Son #1 were made easier because of Son #2, who seemed to teach himself multiplication at the age of 3. This boy grew up to be a walking calculator and advanced so rapidly through math books that I let him just skip whole sections. He started Algebra at age 10 and soon reached the point where I couldn’t remember how to do any of it – thank goodness he doesn’t mind teaching himself. All I have to do is check his answers.

His ease with math convinced me that it was not my fault Son #1 despaired over math, it was simply a matter of different learning styles and strengths. My job was to be aware of those strengths and help find them the resources they need.  Son #2 creates wish lists on Amazon of what books he would like to read because we can’t find any of them in bookstores or libraries.  He is obsessed with computer programming, game physics and game design.  He recently asked for a college level book on 3D math.  It’s just his thing.

My daughter was a different story altogether from her two older brothers.  She understood math concepts just fine as long as they were presented in word problems or with manipulatives.  But she absolutely struggled with representing those concepts in equations.  She could never remember the difference between “plus” signs and “equal” signs and all the other signs – no matter how many worksheets she did.  It just made her furious.  It was like her oldest brother all over again, but this time I couldn’t leave her alone because we lived in a new state that required testing. 

I found a great book called “Math for Humans” by Mark Wahl that explains how to teach math through the 8 intelligences.  My daughter has strong spatial and interpersonal intelligences, so I made an effort to integrate art and storytelling with her math lessons.  I made paper dolls to represent the plus, minus, multiplication, divide and equal signs (they each wore a hat resembling the appropriate sign).  Every math problem became a story problem with the paper dolls and the cuisinaire rods – she finally relaxed.

As she got older, we could replace the manipulatives with more drawing.  The margins of her Math-U-See book were covered in drawings, diagrams and doodles and it made all the difference for her.  We also used math type story books from the library.  She always remembered characters, faces and names.  The trick was to turn inanimate, abstract math symbols into something she cared about.

I’ll write up my unit study on anthropomorphizing math in a future topic.