Posts Tagged ‘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.

Homeschool Graduation?

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It's hard to believe this little guy is all grown up . . .

Today is the day I picked for my son’s official high school graduation date. It was an arbitrary decision, made last Fall, and based on the graduation date for our local high school. But it doesn’t really seem to have any significance because nothing has changed. He hasn’t dropped all his books and exclaimed, “I’m done!” A lot of the things he was doing yesterday, he will be doing again tomorrow.

He finished Physics and Calculus a month ago, but he still subscribes to the math and science channels of Reddit because he likes that stuff. He’s also finished with his official English class at community college but he still reads books all the time and writes daily in his journal and customer support emails. I put “Computer Science” down as one of his high school courses this Spring, but he will still be doing that for years to come because things are always changing and there is always more he wants to learn.

With our self-directed homeschooling style, learning is so much a part of living that there doesn’t seem to be a difference between the two. There is no “graduation.” There is no ending.

So, while everyone around us is buying decorated sheet cakes and planning “Safe and Sober” grad night parties, we feel somewhat at a loss. Should we be doing something? Everyone likes to be appreciated, and fussed over, but I think we’ll wait until he turns 18 in August. The transition from “child” to legal adult is an undeniable milestone. On that day, he will be able to sign all of his official paperwork, vote, keep his bank account private, enter legally binding contracts, and be drafted (oh joy). Who wouldn’t want to celebrate all of that? 🙂

An even bigger transition will happen when he leaves home this September to go to University of Washington. On my part, it will be an occasion for mourning. But he is excited, and I’m sure that after I get over the initial shock, I’ll enjoy watching him create his new independent life.

With that in mind, does anyone have any ideas for appreciating and fussing over  a soon-to-be 18 year old?

A Typical Day of Homeschooling – 13 Years Ago

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Since writing about how great journaling is for remembering our homeschool days, I went back through some of my old binders and found this piece about “My Typical Day,” which I wrote for my local homeschool newsletter in 1998. Jesse was seven, Aengus was five and Emma was two.

I have been trying to decide what a “typical” day is like at my house but it seems that just about every day is different. So I’m just going to tell you about a single day in my house – yesterday.

I woke up at my usual time of 8 am and tiptoed out of the bedroom leaving Emma still snoozing in my bed (my husband Pat is long gone – he leaves at 5 am for work). Jesse is still asleep. Aengus, usually the first to rise, is playing a computer game called “Reader Rabbit’s Kindergarten.” As soon as he hears me moving around he smiles, says “Hi Mommy!” and follows me upstairs. The kitchen is still a mess from the night before, so I make an effort to clean up while my tea brews. I’m not really very productive until I’ve had my morning tea and toast. Aengus fixes himself a waffle that we have made ahead and frozen. Later, he makes Emma a waffle too.

After my breakfast I tackle the kitchen and Jesse staggers in to watch me. Eventually he gets himself some yogurt. When Emma wakes up she needs to be cuddled before she can eat her waffle. She takes exactly 3 bites then asks to watch our “Barney” video, which is her 2-year-old equivalent of tea. I let her watch it while I shower and get dressed. Finally, at around 9:30 we’re ready to start “school.” I call the kids to the dining table and we all write in our journals for about 15 minutes. Aengus can’t write much yet, but he draws pictures and writes the date at the top of the page. Jesse doesn’t like to write, so he usually draws and labels pictures. Emma prefers to water-paint.

Next we pull out the Cuisenaire Rods since this is math day. I’m following along with the Cuisenaire curriculum index cards and today they’re making staircases. The boys are absorbed with this for about 45 minutes. Emma is tired of watercolors and wants better paint so I reluctantly give her some acrylics since I’m all out of kid paint. She paints squiggles and lines and spirals all over each page of her notebook.

I leave them to it while I finish the kitchen and put my daily load of laundry in the washing machine. I hit “touch-up” on the dryer to get rid of the wrinkles that have settled overnight in the load I should have folded yesterday. Then Emma calls for more paint and I see that she has painted her whole naked body and hair with green paint, and is smearing her fingers on the highchair. I rush her into the bathtub and clean up the mess.

The boys are done so we head outside in the garden. Jesse looks for snakes, Aengus and Emma play on the slide while I pull weeds and pound in stakes to support my sagging tomato plants. Jesse and I then fill a paper bag with pears to finish ripening them inside. We pick more zucchini to make zucchini bread. By this time, everyone is hot and thirsty but we first give our ducks more food and change the water in their swimming pool. The kids check the mama duck on her nest to see if her eggs have hatched – not yet. We should be getting ducklings any day now!

Time for lunch. Jesse helps me make a Boboli pizza and we all play “Rhyme Out,” where we each think of words that rhyme until the last person runs out of words (this is the kids’ idea – not mine).

After lunch, we head for the porch to read books. Today we’re reading Dorling Kindersley’s book about eggs because Aengus wants to know how they get in the mama duck’s tummy. Then we read “Horton Hatches an Egg” by Dr. Seuss and “The Halloween House” by Erica Silverman because Jesse likes spooky stories. Right about this time, I have to attend to some emergency potty training with Emma. While I’m gone, Jesse reads our book about koala bears to Aengus, who adores koala bears.

Afterwards, it’s naptime. Aengus trots off to bed and promptly falls asleep. I lay down and nurse Emma to sleep on my bed while I read a book. When she finally conks out, I sneak out and find Jesse playing with his Star Wars Legos. My only goal before dinnertime is to fold the clean laundry that has been accumulating in baskets all week long. But first I have to find a certain receipt. I hit the “touch-up” button on the dryer again and head to my desk. I can’t find the receipt anywhere and I waste a whole half hour digging through the garbage for it. How frustrating! I only have time to pull out the dry clothes and put in the wet ones before I start dinner at 5 pm.

I ask Jesse to vacuum the living room before Dad gets home and I rush back and forth folding clothes and cooking dinner. When Pat walks in at 5:25 pm, there is laundry piled all over the dining room table and dinner is still not ready. He only sighs and pours himself a bowl of cereal. I clear off the table, finish dinner and leave them to it while I go to the Navy Base to exercise. When I get back at 7:30pm, Pat is playing chess with Jesse while Aengus watches. Emma is leaping off the footstool over and over. After the game, Pat heads to bed and I read to the boys a chapter from “The Fallen Spaceman.” Aengus goes to bed, Jesse goes back to his Legos and I go back to the kitchen for more clean up. Emma keeps bothering Jesse, so I fill her little pink bucket with water, give her a clean sponge and tell her to wash. She loves this, and “washes” everything 3 ft and under – walls, piano, chairs, floor, dog, everything!

I turn National Public Radio on low and listen to the news while I do the dishes. Afterwards, I get ready for bed and remind Jesse to turn off the lights before he goes to bed. Emma and I head downstairs and I read her the same four picture books that I read to her every night (at her insistence). Then she nurses to sleep while I read my book. This is my quiet time and I relish every minute of it! I finish the book at midnight and turn the light off.

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Looking back on this day in my life, I found so many things that I had forgotten. My poor husband didn’t have much time at home because he had a long commute to work, so most of our time together was on the weekends. We didn’t have any family in the area and not much money for babysitters, so the only time I could get a break from the kids was when he was home. They were good times though – I wish I had written more journal entries with this much detail. In fact, I wish I had more detail in this one! Like, what did I make for dinner that night? I’ve gone through a lot of phases in my cooking and I’m sometimes surprised to stumble across old recipes I used to make all the time but somehow forgot about. It’s amazing how the most mundane details can trigger so many memories!

 

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.

Is Homeschooling Good or Bad for Introverts?

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Introvert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should you homeschool your kids?

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How to Homeschool

Over the years, I’ve heard a variety of responses when people find out about my homeschooling, but they are surprisingly similar: “Oh- I so admire you for that – I don’t know how you do it,” or “Good for you! I could never homeschool though, I’m just not patient enough,” or “How can you stand it? My kids would drive me crazy!”

I think that many of them are just being polite though, and they really have no interest in homeschooling. That’s OK. I’m not one who believes that every child should be homeschooled. Public and private schools can be a wonderful resource (although I would always support smaller class sizes and more individualized curriculum).

My concern is for the parents who I sense really do want to homeschool, or are at least curious, but think they cannot. So, it made me think, “Under what circumstances is homeschooling not a good idea?” I came up with reasons in five categories: Interest level, Ability, Patience, Motivation and Circumstances.

Interest Level

If the parent who would be doing most of the homeschooling is not interested in homeschooling, that’s really not going to work.  Likewise, if one parent is interested in homeschooling but the other is firmly opposed, that won’t work either. Kids shouldn’t be placed in a tug-of-war between parents; perhaps a trial period or other compromise can be found.

If the child is not interested in being homeschooled, you may suggest a trial period, but don’t push it. I firmly believe that children ought to be given the freedom to direct their own education, even if that means attending traditional school. An obvious exception to this would be if you are concerned for your child’s safety or well-being.

Ability

I don’t believe a college degree or even a high school diploma is a necessary to help your own children learn. But without those things, I do believe that the homeschooling parent should be literate and self-educated to some extent. Parents should know enough to know what they don’t know, so that they can find the appropriate resources for help. For instance, if a homeschooling mom knows that her math skills are weak, she can pick a program that gives step-by-step solutions or one-on-one tutoring if necessary.  Parents do not have to teach everything!!!If a parent is particularly worried about their own academic weaknesses, they might feel more comfortable using an all-in-one curriculum that gives step-by-step instructions and phone support.

Patience

Parents envision the headaches they will have getting their kids to sit down and finish their work, and they are right. That’s one good reason not to do it that way. Homeschooling is not the same thing as school at home. Many parents do choose to have a fairly formal schedule and curriculum, but that is NOT necessary. Children who are given free rein over their own education will learn amazing things, and there is no need to force it. Please see my book or this post for more information.

You will still need patience however, because you will still be a parent, and there will still be sibling squabbles, temper tantrums, chore avoidance, dawdling, and disobedience. But you may find that spending more time with your children, during the better part of the day, will bring you all closer together. By doing fun things together, talking, listening, and working side-by-side, your rhythms will start to mesh. The tensions of rushing around before and after school or work will be gone. The kids will get more sleep, be more comfortable, and have more time to play. You may find that you get along better with your children than you ever thought possible – as long as you don’t try to be the mean ol’ schoolmaster.

Motivation

Some critics point out that parents should not be allowed to homeschool because they only wish to indoctrinate/brainwash their kids. I imagine there are indeed parents like that, although I hope not many. My answer to that is we all unintentionally brainwash our kids anyway. We can’t help it. Even when we are trying to present other viewpoints, it is very difficult to hide our own. Even schools wish to indoctrinate children in the values and beliefs considered important to society. All kids, schooled or not, are going to absorb the belief systems of their families and teachers, though they may later choose to reject those beliefs. Also, it’s pretty hard to shelter kids these days from every opposing viewpoint. So, while I hope that parents have nobler motivations to homeschool their children, I don’t think the threat of brainwashing is bad enough to say they shouldn’t homeschool.

Circumstances

If there is no way for one parent or adult family member to stay home with young kids, then homeschooling really isn’t an option. Although I have known parents who worked at alternative private schools like Montessori or Waldorf and were able to enroll their kids for free or reduced tuition. Also consider alternative working arrangements like both parents working different part-time shifts, working from home and hiring a helper, or down-sizing to live off of one income.

For responsible teenagers, I think it is possible for them to be home alone during the day as long as someone is available later to help answer questions, find resources, etc. I know of a single mom who pulled her teenaged son out of high school because he was being bullied. While she went to work everyday, he worked on his online curriculum, practiced his cello, took cooking lessons (within walking distance) and worked as an apprentice at a local guitar repair shop. He later joined a Celtic Bluegrass band and now makes his living as a professional musician traveling all around the country.

If there is a stay-at-home parent, but he or she is overwhelmed with smaller children or other responsibilities, it may be too difficult to give the older children the attention they need. But it IS possible – especially if that parent is organized and has a great sense of humor. There are a number of great homeschooling books that address this very subject, so I would recommend reading up on what other families have done before deciding one way or the other.

Another part of circumstances is financial resources. It’s nice to have the money to buy all the cool homeschool curriculum available these days, but it is not necessary. You can get all sorts of great resources for free or very cheaply. The homeschooler’s greatest friend is the public library. I also bought some of my favorite learning materials at garage sales and used curriculum swaps. So, the main concern for financial resources is the ability to live off of one income, and homeschoolers have become masters of household frugality (this gives me an idea for a future post).

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If you are interested in homeschooling, but still not sure, I would recommend searching for homeschool groups in your local area. Find out when they are meeting and ask to come see what it is all about. Homeschoolers love to talk about homeschooling, and they will be able to answer a lot of your questions. You can also read up online or in your local library, but there is no substitute for meeting real homeschooling families.

 

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.

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?

The Power of Beginnings

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If there was just one habit to help you accomplish more with your time, it’s this . . . decide ahead of time what you want to accomplish. I don’t mean a lengthy to-do list. I mean a prioritized short list. In the morning, ask yourself what the number one most important thing to do today is, then do it. The same habit applies for smaller time intervals. If you have 20 minutes before leaving for dance class, think of what you want to accomplish in that 20 minutes. If you are about to make an important phone call, think of what you want to accomplish before dialing.

“Begin each day as if it were on purpose.” – Mary Ann Radmacher

Stephen Covey calls this habit, “Begin with the end in mind.” Of course you have LOTS of stuff to do, especially with homeschooling on top of housework, and kids to derail your plans. That happens. But your to-do list MUST get one item smaller every day and you must decide in advance what that one most important item will be. If you have time for more – great!

Do be realistic though. Your number one item for the day can’t be “repaint the house” unless you really can repaint the house in one day. Maybe that can be your number one goal for the week (or month); then break the big job into smaller daily jobs.

It’s also OK to decide that the number one thing you want to accomplish for the day is a nap, or a hot bath, or a date with your husband. If that is your priority, you can make it happen.

This is the power of beginnings. Time is a pitiless master, but you don’t have to surrender to it. Just take a minute to point yourself in the right direction, and keep going.