Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

2nd Annual Homeschool+ Conference August 7th & 8th

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Join the second annual Homeschool+ Conference, August 7th + 8th, 2014, with two days of crowdsourced presentations, plus three nights of preconference keynote sessions. This online and free event provides an opportunity to share strategies, practices, and resources for those involved with homeschooling, unschooling, free schools, democratic schools, and other forms of alternative, independent, and non-traditional education. While the Homeschool+ Conference is geared toward those participating in or wanting to learn more about homeschooling, unschooling, free schools, democratic schools, and other forms of alternative/non-traditional education, this conference will also be valuable for traditional educators looking to expand their scope and understanding of teaching and learning practices. Learn more at

I will be giving a Keynote Presentation called “The Unschooling Parent’s 2nd Worst Fear” at 5pm Pacific Time, Tuesday August 5th.  It’s all free – so come join in with homeschooling parents from all over the world!

All the Things We Learn in High School

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My daughter, who is now finishing up 11th grade in our public high school, shared with me a College Humor video called “Some Study That I Used to Know,” that she and her classmates were watching in AP English (they were all finished with standardized testing so the teacher let them watch Youtube videos as  a reward). College Humor videos are a big favorite – highly inappropriate for younger viewers but most are quite funny and original.

This particular video was about all the things we learn in high school but promptly forget or never use again, for example: igneous vs. metamorphic, iambic pentameter, geometry, Millard Filmore, Eli Whitney. This made me chuckle, especially thinking about all the things I covered in college that I don’t even remember knowing! I once came across a 5 page biographical essay I wrote in my “Modern Russia” course and didn’t even recognize the name of the person I wrote about! And no, it wasn’t because I partied too much. It was probably from sleep deprivation and too much marching (I went to a military academy).

There’s a lot of attention these days on what our kids are learning (Common Core for example) and how we might get them to learn it better. Even amongst the homeschool crowd, the discussion is more often about the best way to promote retention, not “Do we really have to learn this?”

I’m not claiming to have any definitive answers about what our kids should learn, mainly because I think it should depend on what the kids want to learn. But I was inspired to make a list of all the things I learned in high school that turned out to be useful, whether I knew it at the time or not:

  • How to format, write, and fold a business letter
  • Commonly misspelled homophones
  • European history (the big picture – even if I don’t remember all the details)
  • U.S. history (same as above)
  • How to use ratios to solve practically everything
  • How to determine the amount of wall space in a room I am about to paint
  • How to use a computer
  • Rudimentary Spanish
  • How to cut out a pattern and use a sewing machine
  • Making and reading graphs
  • Use of the vanishing point while drawing
  • Some chemicals are very very dangerous
  • How to serve in tennis
  • Converting units of measurement – units are very  important!
  • How to manage my time
  • How to prepare a Bibliography
  • How to find what I need in a library
  • Evaluating source material before writing

I’m sure there are more items to add, but you can see that this list might be different for everyone. How about you? What did you learn in high school that turned out to be the most useful?

Praise for Invisible Work

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Invisible Work

“Nobody notices what I do until I don’t do it.”

If you’ve seen this quote before, I’m sure you’ll agree that there is a timeless truth to this sentiment. I’ve been noticing lately the explosion of blogs and programs designed to help you ditch the 9 to 5 and live life large. The featured photos are always exciting and exotic – think yoga on a curtain-draped patio in Bali or climbing mountains in Patagonia. Many of these imagined scenarios sound lovely, and make my life feel frumpy and boring in comparison – which is the point I guess. It IS important to examine our own lives and think about what we really want, instead of just doing the same thing day after day for lack of any better ideas.

But what is with this pressure to be youthful and exciting? It’s as if our lives can’t have any meaning unless we push the boundaries, searching for that next amazing selfie backdrop to make our Facebook friends jealous. I know that some people genuinely crave adrenaline to feel alive (my husband is one of them), but I also know that some people find just as much bliss watching mist settle over a pond (I am one of them).

I also happen to believe in the value of seemingly boring work. One of my favorite book series as a kid was the “Dragonriders of Pern” series by Anne McCaffrey. The dragonriders were the heroes of course, daring, respected and influential. Oddly though, I was always more interested in the people who took care of the “Holds” and “Weyrs” where everybody on Pern lived. I thought about the logistics involved with feeding and supplying all of those people. Where would it come from? If I were in charge, how would I manage it? How would I delegate the chores? I wasn’t interested in fighting dragonback – I wanted to organize.

This is exactly what those self-help blogs aim to save us from – “Drop that scrub brush and become a dragon rider!” If you are truly discontent with your current occupation, then by all means, change it. But for those of you who toil away in jobs that will never look good in a photo, take pride. We need to stick together. War correspondents, dolphin trainers, and wilderness guides may have better stories to tell, but the world would miss us more if we all stopped doing what we do.

Using Comic Cards for Narration

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My boys were not enthusiastic writers. We would read piles of books together, which they thoroughly enjoyed as long as the books were interesting.  And they were happy to talk about the reading, as long as I didn’t call it “narration” (because that sounded too contrived or schoolish), but when it came to “Let’s write a paragraph about what happened during the War of 1812,” there was absolutely zero interest in this.

Being a fairly laid-back sort of homeschooling mom, I didn’t want to force them to write, but I was a bit anxious. It seemed like they ought to occasionally write something. I also felt that keeping some sort of history timeline would be helpful, because we would sometimes jump from Ancient Greece to Early American History to Medieval Europe, and they needed some way to put it all in perspective. I finally had the idea to try something that my oldest son was already doing – drawing comics.

He could spend 45 minutes with one sheet of blank paper, drawing epic space battles with laser blasts and little text bubbles for the characters to hurl insults at one another. So, I suggested that he illustrate scenes from our reading on a small 3 X 5 card, and then we would collect the cards to lay down on a timeline. He thought this was a fine idea, and my younger son was happy to do whatever his big brother was doing.


It worked pretty well. After reading, the boys would choose something to illustrate and I would write a short description of the event because they believed that even this would be too much writing. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before they started writing their own descriptions on the front or back of the card. We also included the date of the event on the back of the card.

Each boy had his own index card box to store the cards, and once a month or so, we would lay all the cards down on a timeline on the floor. I had purchased a roll of adding machine paper and used about 20 feet to mark out time periods. When we taped the paper to the floor, the boys used the dates on the back of their cards to lay them out in the proper order. It was tricky because some areas would have LOTS of cards (Early American time period), while some areas would have none. This did make an impression though, because we all realized, “Hey –  I have no idea what happened during these 600 years!” It was humbling.


Eventually, as the boys got older, they did learn to write well (perhaps a subject for another post), but drawing timeline comics on the index cards provided easy nonthreatening preparation for note-taking in those early years. For one thing, the small size of the card seemed more manageable. They weren’t faced with a full sheet of blank notebook paper to fill. Plus, using dialogue bubbles meant that they could write without worrying about complete sentences or exact punctuation. They also enjoyed seeing what the other brother created for each event. It was always a secret until they finished and traded cards.

I’ll mention another idea for cards here – if your kids like to collect and play with cards such as “Pokemon” or “Magic the Gathering,” they might enjoy making similar cards for history, science or literary characters. My only advice would be to give them plenty of artistic license. It wouldn’t be any fun if they couldn’t use their imaginations to embellish the truth a bit!

Do you have any other ideas for using index cards in your homeschool?

How Do Homeschooled Kids Learn to Take Notes?

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Note-takingMy daughter, who goes to a public high school, has been exclaiming about her heavy homework load this year – particularly in AP American History where she is expected to take copious notes from her textbook reading. I’ve been watching with interest, to see if this method helps her retain any of the information. It also got me thinking about my boys off at college. They never took notes in high school, because they didn’t go to high school. It never really occurred to me that they should learn such a thing. In my mind, note-taking was something you did during a lecture to help remember what the teacher said, and this was before the age of Powerpoint and online course notes. I did show them how to take notes for research papers, and how to keep track of works cited. But we didn’t do “lectures” in our homeschool, so they never learned to record information in this way. Did this handicap my kids when they went off to sit in lecture halls at college?

What my kids think of taking notes

When polled, my oldest son said:  “I don’t think the lack of note-taking lessons hurt me at all.  I just sorta DO it, it’s not exactly rocket science.  I feel like everyone ends up developing a unique style anyway, so there’s not a huge amount of benefit in learning a particular method.”

My younger son reported that he does have a hard time taking notes, but mainly because his handwriting is so slow. If he brings his laptop to class though, he can type amazingly fast – being ambidextrous may be a disadvantage with pen or pencil, but it’s pretty handy with a keyboard! Most of the time, he prefers not to take notes at all because it distracts him from listening to the professor. He listens with intense focus and somehow remembers everything he hears. It depends on what type of course he’s taking as well. Most of his classes now are about math, computer science, physics and music theory. For these topics, it’s more important for him to understand what is happening then to absorb a lot of random facts and figures. Later, while studying or doing homework, he pulls it all together in his notebooks to solve problems.

What about those information dense courses such as history, biology and foreign language? My daughter’s not sure yet if her history teacher’s note-taking requirement will help her remember, but she is a devoted believer in flash cards. For her, making little flash cards for vocabulary words, grammar rules and biology facts really helped her learn the material in past coursework.

What the pros think of taking notes

In an interesting paper called “Note Taking and Learning: A Summary of Research” presented by the WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) Journal, the authors state that the function of note-taking is twofold: “Note-takers take notes to fulfill two major functions: to record information and/or to aid in reflection.” It’s not surprising that note-taking is really a very complicated skill that requires the student to decide what is important and how to describe it in a few keywords. The very act of note-taking is supposed to help students remember – especially if they transform the original information source and put it in their own words. Summarizing has been shown to be more effective than simply highlighting words in a text.

This paper also summarizes the studies done to evaluate the effectiveness of different methods of note-taking. It seems that recording information in a matrix or keyword tree type diagram is more effective than the outline structure, which in turn is more effective than the linear method used by most students. This means that using the whole page to spatially organize information into categories is more effective than just line after line of abbreviated notes. For examples of what this looks like, please do look up images of this type of note-taking online.

How does this work for homeschooling kids?

I can certainly understand how matrix style note-taking could really help the university student, which is the focus of the WAC Journal paper. And even though homeschooling students don’t typically sit through lectures, I can see how some form of note-taking would help “aid in reflection” as kids process information learned through reading, watching or learning from experience. It also occurred to me that some of our common homeschooling methods already fill that role.

Charlotte Mason style narration for example, asks kids to summarize material learned in their own words, first through oral narration and then written as they get older. There are many other narration methods for kids with different learning styles to transform raw information and put it in a form that is personally meaningful.

Lapbooks, notebooking, foldables, and other forms of paper projects all seem to serve a similar role in helping a student create something unique out of pure information. Another style that might appeal to your kids is visual note-taking or sketchnotes. A little online searching will yield some amazing examples.

As in so many other things, I think the best way for a student to “take notes” and process information will depend on his or her learning style. Show your kids examples of what other people have tried, and see if anything jumps out at them. They might want to try different techniques for that biology textbook or those world history DVDs, all with the objective of retaining and understanding what they learn. Next week I’ll post some examples of cartoon timeline cards my boys made for studying history – humor being their favorite way to spin any subject.

What the World’s Best Basketball Coach Can Teach You About How to Homeschool

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John WoodenThe late John Wooden was a highly esteemed coach who built up the UCLA Bruins into a powerhouse team with 10 National Championships. The Sporting News named him “The Greatest Coach of All Time” in 2009, and he wrote several books about his principles of coaching, success and leadership. There is a lot we could learn from him, but the wisdom I’d like to borrow from him today is about the way he taught athletes during practice.

He used what is known as the whole-part-whole framework: first introduce the big concept, then break it down into smaller parts, then put the parts back together after they are mastered. Wooden carefully planned all of his practices, using 3X5 cards to keep his drills and teaching points in order. He was adamant about the fundamentals of ball handling, and took the time to teach his players exactly how to do each move, routinely demonstrating first the right way, then the wrong way, then the right way again. His feedback to the players was short, concise, and packed with useful information related to the task at hand.

He also kept his practices moving along, keeping the players focused and alert, with the first half devoted to new material and the second half devoted to repetition of previously learned skills. He believed that his players must be able to perform the fundamentals so well that they don’t need to think about them. Then, during games, their attention could be focused on the dynamics of the court.

John Wooden’s methods worked spectacularly well in basketball, and I think they could work equally well in any teaching environment. But the thing to remember is that he didn’t teach his skill drills in isolation. He taught them within the context of something the players cared about – basketball.

A lot of the skills that students are expected to learn in school, such as reading, writing and multiplication, are indeed fundamental and require lots of practice. However, teaching them in isolation, with one workbook for every subject is hardly ideal. Teachers are then forced to find some external motivation such as bribes, praise, or punishment  to keep the kids’ attention.

The better way is to teach basic skills within the context of something your kids already care about or have an interest in learning. This is really pretty easy when kids are little. Have you ever used the “Five in a Row” curriculum series developed by Jane Claire Lambert? They are an excellent example of using something a child cares about, in this case a wonderful storybook, as a starting point to teach various skills or concepts. My family LOVED using these books, and I was sad when we outgrew them.

Another thing we used were certain Scholastic math skills books because my kids thought they were fun. They loved outlandish word problems, riddles, and games. Educational software games were a hit too.

It gets harder to do this as kids get older because you probably won’t find prepared lesson plans full of advanced skill-builders in the topics that your kids most want to learn about. In this case, you might have to come up with your own 3X5 cards with ideas for practicing the fundamentals – this is the virtue of “Unit Studies.” You might be able to find pre-packaged unit studies that suit your student, but be wary. I’ve seen a lot of dull stuff out there, clearly written by people who don’t have a passion for the topic.

Better yet is to work with your student to craft your own unit study. Take whatever they are passionate about, say fashion, and brainstorm ways your child could practice some of the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic. Along the way, there will undoubtedly be a smattering of history, geography, sociology, critical thinking about media and pop culture, and who knows what else.

John Wooden was able to keep the same stack of 3X5 cards and use them over and over again because he always had students who were interested in the same thing: becoming better basketball players. You will not be able to do that because your kids will all be motivated by something different. But you can use the same framework of whole-part-whole.

Can you think of ways to teach skills within the context of something your child is already interested in learning?

If you Like Mushrooms, You’re Going to Love This

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I know I don’t normally write about what I made for dinner, but this was so good I had to share! I made this recipe for Creamy Mushroom Bruschetta with Arugula Salad using a trio-pack of gourmet mushrooms from Costco.

It WAS SO delicious, especially on rye toasts! Also, the recipe is super easy and quick to make on a weeknight (very important).

These little mushrooms are so cute.

I’m no food photographer, so bear with me.

After sauteing the mushrooms, add the garlic, then the sour cream and chives.

The finished product: Also, here’s the cool tablecloth I made for Halloween:

You’re Invited

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Steve Hargadon from the epic “Future of Education” website will be interviewing me LIVE tomorrow (Thursday Oct. 25th) at 5pm Pacific/8pm Eastern.

If you are interested, feel free to listen in and interact by clicking on this link. Or, if that’s not a good time for you, the one-hour interview will be recorded and posted on The Future of Education website, along with a whole list of fascinating past interviews with educators of all kinds. You will be especially interested in this site if you want to know more about the role of technology and changing paradigms in education.

Chance to Win a Free Copy of my eBook

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The indomitable Kathy Sprinkle is holding a party over at her Bliss Habits website, with lots of guest posts and giveaways!

To check out my guest post on “Kitchen Sink Poetry” and a chance to win a free copy of my ebook, Legendary Learning, just click here. The deadline is Friday May 18th, so don’t wait!

The Queen of Routines

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Before I move off the subject of routines, there is one website you simply must check out: The original “Flylady,” Marla Cilley, and her crew are the best mentors ever for getting your life under control. They give away warm, comforting, free advice on things like housekeeping, menu planning, self-improvement, household organization, kid management, and it’s all done with a sense of humor. It’s hard to explain, you just have to check it out.

One of Flylady’s most important tips is to take “Baby Steps.” You should not beat yourself up trying to do everything right all the time (and not succeeding). Break a giant task into small chunks. Or if you are trying to master a long string of habits, start with just one. It takes about a month of continuous practice to really develop a habit – so unless you have extraordinary willpower, just concentrate on a few improvements at a time.

Disclaimer – even though I love Flylady, my house is rarely clean. We try to stay on top of the bathrooms and the kitchen, but the rest of the house looks like an explosion of laundry, books, mail, recycling to be taken out, dog toys, backpacks, wilted flower arrangements, and bread crumbs. Truth is, my priorities lie elsewhere and I know I can’t do everything. The kids help a lot, but they are busy people too. I do occasionally work myself into a mad frenzy of cleaning, especially when company is coming, so my house does get spiffed up sometimes. That’s probably the only thing saving us from squalor. Three cheers for company!