posts tagged with 'homeschooling,'

school's out for the summer

We celebrated the end of our school year today with a trip to Berry Pond, the gem of Harold Parker State Forest. The plan was to meet our friends there at 10:30, but we were ferociously late getting going. Never mind, so were they! We pulled into the parking lot at 10:50 only a little after them, and after that everything was pure relaxation.

the kids playing in the water at Berry Pond

summer

The best part of Berry Pond is that you can be on the beach and in the shade. You can even swim in the shade! Though it wasn't that warm a day, so we parents were happy to stay out of the water completely. Not the kids though: they were in it all day.

Or not quite all day: there were two exceptions. First was for food—befitting our celebratory gathering we had quite a spread, including chips, popcorn, crackers, veggies and dip, strawberries, brownies, cupcakes, and two kinds of lemonade. And then everybody had their own packed lunch, too, not that those lunches got much attention.

the kids at a picnic table loaded with treats

treats

The kids also took some time off from swimming to walk halfway around the pond to a beautiful rocky spot opposite the maintained beach. It's a perfect place for getting in the water, except for one thing: it's absolutely covered with "no swimming" signs. That's so unfair that I did have to let the kids go in for a little bit, but couldn't hold out against the pressure of the rules for as long as they wanted to swim. So sad.

the kids swimming off the forbidden rocks at Berry Pond

how can such a beautiful spot be forbidden?!

But never mind, the beach was good too—good for well over two hours of swimming and relaxing and being together to mark the end of this strangest of school years. Not that too much will change: our same group is getting together next Monday. Call it summer camp?

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all kinds of learning

This past Sunday I titled one of our "moment" photos "playing with fire", because that's what the Bubble School kids are into these days. Both school days at our house last week they spent all their outside time making campfires and boiling water, and yesterday in Acton they were excited to do the same thing, with the additional fun of building a shelter by their fire pit (since our friends' yard isn't blessed, like ours, with a playhouse). Some of us parents were slightly worried about the possibility of conflagration—they were doing their fire-building in a corner of woods thickly carpeted with fallen leaves—but when I went out to check I saw that everything was so wet they could barely keep their kindling burning without constant effort from the lighter. So probably no conflagrations were likely, and we could rest easy with an occasional check-in glance out the kitchen window. Or so we thought!

No, the kids didn't set anything on fire (though they did succeed in getting the fire in their ring to be self-sustaining after a half-hour of sustained work!). But a neighbor was even more concerned than we were, and she came over and, after staring for a while, asked the kids if their parents knew what they were doing. Well of course we did! And as we heard the story afterwards, the oldest of our wonderful gang of kids—not Harvey, he's the second-oldest by a month and a half—had the presence of mind to answer. "Yes, they do, thank you," she said. "Goodbye!" (She emphasized afterwards that she said "goodbye").

Now of course, if they were hardened juvenile delinquents they would have scoffed at a question like that—or worse!—but our homeschool children are sensitive! There were some tears when they came in to report to us, and it took some work to reassure them that no, they hadn't actually done anything wrong. Some people just like to... involve themselves in other people's lives. It was too bad, but even as some kids were upset it was awesome to see how they supported and comforted each other. And even better, they went back out and relit the fire that they had stamped out after the neighbor's visit. And this time they set a guard to make sure they'd be ready if she came back!

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happy birthday Dr King

Today is Martin Luther King Jr's birthday. We studied his life this week, and today in Bubble School the kids each gave their reports. (I freely acknowledge the potential pitfalls in doing Black history with a bunch of white kids, but I think trying is still better than the alternative—and anyways, at this point 1/3 of our school population is 1/2 non-white, so there!) Our discussion was sensitive and nuanced. We talked about the considerable role Dr King played in the Civil Rights movement and also about the fact that there were others, less famous, who played roles that were just as significant. We talked about the importance of non-violent protest, and also thought about situations where violence is necessary for tactical or emotional reasons. And we celebrated that there is a Martin Luther King Day holiday, while also all agreeing that we have a ways to go, both as a country and as individuals, before Dr King's dream can come true.

Without libraries the research was more challenging than it might have been—like everything in this pandemic. But our group found a way to make it happen, using a combination of web sites (mainly Wikipedia), audio books from Audible and LeVar Burton's Skybrary, documentary films, and audio of Dr King's speeches. Plus the diversity of sources gave us a chance to talk about historiography, and why you might want to seek out a variety of accounts about any one person or event.

Martin Luther King Day is Monday, of course. We're not taking school off that day, though; we're honoring Dr King's memory by meeting, talking about his legacy and the road ahead, and eating a cake to celebrate his birthday. We're looking forward to it!

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back to school

I don't know how the school kids felt about going back this January, whether to their classrooms or their remote terminals. Given what Christmas looked like this year, maybe they were fine with it; even excited. But there's no way they were as happy as we were, because our return to "school" this week has been absolutely delightful. We started off on Monday with a joyful reunion with our bubble group, who came over for the day. Certain of the children were looking forward to doing some math work, but that didn't happen; instead, we talked (and wrote and drew) about what we're looking forward to in 2021, listened to some stories, ate lots of dessert together, then took a long walk in the woods. After school time ended, the kids who got to stick around a little longer did woodworking in the basement and made some swords, which they of course proceeded to battle with.

kids on a rock ledge overlooking the airport

school friends together

On Tuesday Harvey's online classes started back up. He enjoyed playing his banjo with his grandpa and cousin in his music class, and had an even better time hanging out with the boys of the ancient history class. The younger boys did Zoom yoga with Grandma, which activity has replaced their read-aloud now that they've finished Tuck Everlasting (and received yoga mats and blocks for Hanukah!). And Wednesday was the online book group party celebrating the completion of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Elijah was super excited to wear his monkey costume and bring a peach, and the other boys were interested enough to come up with costumes of their own. In the event peaches were not available, it being not at all the season, but Lijah was contented with a jar of canned peaches from the basement. The best part of the party, though—the best part of this whole book group—was the tea: herbal tea has a fairly important part in the story, so one of the things all the kids enjoy is having some as they listen. I'm working during book group time so the boys have to make theirs themselves... which I think makes it even more fun.

I thought today might be a bit of a letdown, with nothing on the schedule, but that was actually perfect for Harvey. He's been after me for a couple weeks to teach him programing, and today we finally had time to get started. Not that I know too much about the subject, but more than him—and certainly enough to pique his interest. Today we wrote some pseudo-code to talk about functions and loops and things, and then did some actual programing in Apple Basic (which, delightfully, is implemented in Javascript here). And we also took a good exploring walk. All in all, I think our first week back is going pretty well.

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Native American study

One of our focuses so far in Bubble School (to the extent that we can focus on anything at all!) has been the Native people of the Northeast. It's a little bit because we started school on Indigenous Peoples' Day, and a little more because we're all interested in living a little more lightly on the land—and respecting and honoring the people who the place where we live really belongs to. We've learned some things about cooking with corn meal and making wetus; but the thing that I've learned most dramatically is that the history of the tribes of what is now New England is told entirely through the lens of the colonizers. Even in sensitive, scholarly accounts of the Eastern Algonquin people, they hardly exist before white folks wash up on these shores and run into them.

That's actually not surprising, given the historical situation. The Algonquins didn't have written history before colonization, and then the pace at which the genocide proceeded after made it impossible to preserve anything but the most superficial details about their stories and way of life over the last 10,000 years. It's pretty depressing.

We learned a little bit about that genocide too. The most rage-inducing part of it, as it applies to modern day, is the fact that tribes like the Massachusett and Nipmuc are denied Federal recognition because, contra the laws defining recognition, they don't "comprise a distinct community [that has] existed as a community from historical times." Yeah no duh, that's what a genocide will do. Other tribes, such as the Pennacook, no longer even have any groups big enough to be seeking recognition. All that: that's the history that's available to us. What if that's the history that was taught in Massachusetts elementary schools at Thanksgiving? One day.

In the meantime, I'd love to find even a little bit written by Native authors, even if they don't have any more access to pre-colonial history than white historians. We would appreciate at least a little balancing of the voices. Any suggestions? (Not entirely related but close: here's an article I read today about preserving foodways among Canada's First Nations..)

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bubbling up

Monday was an exciting day at our house. After a couple weeks of thinking and planning and feeling each other out, we had the first full day of our in-person school bubble. It was so great. With two other families, we gathered on the back deck to talk about Indigenous Peoples' Day, do some math and literacy work together, and process acorns in water boiling on the fire. And play and talk, of course. And when the rain got a little heavy for the group working on paper, we even went inside! The first time anyone but us has sat on our couches in almost seven months was a big moment... and it's not a coincidence that it was some of the same people who were here the last time back in March.

Lijah and two friends doing math work in our living room

math with friends!

We're part of a co-op, but it's having trouble getting going this fall. That may be my fault—I refuse to admit to any particular leadership, but I'm certainly one of the main organizers. In any case, between everyone's different schedules and risk profiles, nobody's really wanted to commit to in-person events; and most of the kids aren't that big on video-conferencing (we're trying to stay away from it ourselves, at least while the weather stays warmish). So a couple weeks ago I reached out to two families who we see socially who were also willing to consider getting together, and we agreed that we could try bubbling up to do some school work.

The bubble part is, of course, new and exciting—we spent five hours together yesterday, easily the longest stretch of time we've shared space with anyone since the pandemic started. But the school part is new too! For the last few years our co-op activities have been limited to fun outings, enrichment activities (awesome ones, to be fair!) and book groups. This fall we're going to be trying to do a little more consistent work together on things like math and writing, and giving our kids a chance to work with age peers rather than their siblings all the time. It's still a work in progress, but it was encouraging yesterday to observe the attention span the kids showed for working together. We're planning to gather every Monday and Friday, and we'll see how it goes... we have high hopes!

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other teachers

Our homeschooling is ticking along fine, pretty much on the model of previous years: we start the day with a morning meeting, then the boys have an hour or two of work time, then it's on to adventures and playing and all the other important things. One thing new this year, though, is that Harvey is involved in a couple of fun learning opportunities led by people who aren't me!

The first is an Ancient History class organized by one of our good homeschooling friends. He was invited to participate at the last minute, but with 24 hours notice he was able to read the required chapter via phone photos of the book and join in the initial meeting in fine form. Since then we've got him his own copy, and he's been able to join in the age-old middle school history practice of reading chapters and outlining them. How else do you learn history?! Then he gets to take part in a Zoom meeting on Thursday afternoon with three other super cool middle school boys and talk about saber-tooth acorns and Old Norse runes and also, I assume, a little bit about Egyptians and Sumerians.

Harvey's grandpas are also doing their part to contribute to his education this fall. Also on Tuesdays my dad is running a class for Harvey and Harvey's cousin Nisia, who's in fifth grade. They're doing a multidisciplinary study incorporating music, science, and literature, all based around a pop tune from 1948 that he arranged. And on Wednesday morning Harvey and Zion are getting tennis lessons from their other grandpa—not just playing tennis, but doing footwork drills and everything. Both grandpas are retired now, so they have plenty of time for projects—and we get the benefit!

It's awesome watching Harvey working hard on all these things, without any organization from me needed. I'm going to have to offer something for other kids I know to return the karmic favor. What can I teach about? Maybe Vikings: I certainly have plenty of knowledge to share about runes!

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our school at home

The Monday after Labor Day seems like as fine a day as any to kick off our fall season of school at home, so that's what we did today. Not that you'd notice, necessarily, if you didn't know us and just happened to pop in. We started things off after breakfast with a chat about what learning means, and what school means, and how there's lots of learning outside of a teacher-student relationship, and how it's also sometimes good to do some formal study and practice. You know, to lay the groundwork. Then we went outside to see if we could spot any signs of monarch butterflies on our milkweed plants. We found plenty of chewed-on leaves and one egg, but no caterpillars. We also observed various other flowers around the yard and thought about how much butterflies might like different types (we noticed that, this morning at least, many many bumblebees were enjoying the goldenrod). We made a yellow and purple bouquet to bring inside.

Then I had a Zoom meeting for work to attend, and the boys did a little writing and drawing. Bedford schools aren't in session yet so before long a friend stopped by, and they went out to play for a while. After lunch we did a little cleaning, then we headed of for our first homeschool co-op outing of the fall: a hike at the October Farm Riverfront (I wanted to do something with people today, since yesterday marked six months since Covid shut down our co-op in the spring). Not everybody is ready to do that sort of thing yet, though, and even those who are aren't really organized yet. So only one other family joined us. Never mind, we had a great time playing in the river and the mud and on the hills, and noticing grasshoppers, stick insects, poison ivy, frogs, and oak galls (and collecting, temporarily, examples of all of those except poison ivy). We also brought home rocks, sticks, mussel shells, and broken glass; we saw racoon tracks, but couldn't think how to collect them short of photographing them. Oh, and we also saw herons and egrets. No attempt was made at capturing either.

Nowhere in there did we do any math, despite it being the top-listed attraction of school at home for two of the three boys (Harvey said he was most interested in music learning). So there's still plenty to look forward to for tomorrow!

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zooming through the last book

When the pandemic started there were lots of people creating attractive offerings online, and one of them was from our friends the Jacksons (creators of the amazing story podcast, Tales From the Moosiverse). As we entered the first full pandemic week—the first week of lockdown, no school, and work from home—they stepped up an offered to read a chapter book to any and all kids who wanted to tune in over Zoom from two to three o'clock. They kicked it off with Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman, and when that was finished—in just a couple of days—they moved right on to the fabulous Adventures with Waffles by Maria Parr. They read for an hour every day, and the group of kids listening quickly became a real community. It was certainly a big part of our life! The five-day-a-week schedule ran through the end of June, then they switched to Monday-Wednesday-Friday for the summer months. This week, after something like 35 books and close to 100 hours of reading, what came to be called "Zoom Through a Book" came to an end.

The Jacksons didn't read all those books, all those hours. Other parents and grandparents stepped in for a few—I read three, myself—and a couple kids even did some reading. But they carried the bulk of it, and all of the scheduling effort, and they were definitely the heart and soul of the project. The 30 or so kids who were there that first week back in March didn't all stick around, of course: as schools' remote learning started up some of them got too busy, and others drifted away when the weather got nicer. But that just meant the group that stuck around became more and more of a community (interestingly, all but one of the diehards were homeschoolers...). After the reading ended each day they'd stick around to chat and share games and pictures with the "share screen" function, for 45 minutes or more if they could get away with it. Human contact is precious these days! There was a party on Wednesday to wrap things up, and it definitely felt like something worth scheduling.

At this point, to be honest, we're ready for a break from screens. That full schedule I described in the linked post up again (here it is again if you don't want to scroll up) eased up a bit as the months of the pandemic passed, but not that much. We're doing Kids Church on Sunday, then it's no Zoom for a full week—more, if we can manage it—while we clear our brains and get ready for fall. We're planning a little more (careful) human contact, but we know that there will be plenty of virtual interaction too. Which is fine: because the Jacksons have shown us how well it can go! Yay for Zoom Through a Book!

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beginning my print publishing career

I'm in a book! A couple months ago a member of our homeschool coop emailed me asking if I wanted to contribute an essay to a book she was putting together called "Why I Love Homeschooling." She was interested in getting a variety of voices, and was looking for my thoughts as a homeschooling dad and as a former public school teacher. She was looking for kind of a quick turnaround, since she and her coauthor wanted to have the book published and available by early August, in time for parents to read as they considered possibly homeschooling for the first time this school year. No problem for me... you know I was going to do it all the day before it was due, regardless of when that was! No, just kidding; I actually put in a fair amount of thought and effort, and at least a little bit of that effort was measurably in advance of the due date. There were two challenges to the process, things I don't have to deal with in the rest of my writing. First, I wanted to make sure what I had to say matched the rest of the book while still being my actual voice. Second, it's not easy being edited! How can it be my voice when you keep changing my words?! But I like to think I was a pretty good sport about it.

The book is available now on Amazon if you want to take a look at it: only $12.99, or free on Kindle Unlimited! (whatever that is...). I also have one spare copy that I can pass on to the first person who lets me know they want it!

Or if you just want to read my chapter (totally understandable! but the others are good too) here it is:

ABOUT OUR FAMILY

I sometimes tell people that we fell into homeschooling by accident. Our oldest was still four the year we got a kindergarten registration packet in the mail for the first time. He would have been one of the youngest kids in his class, we didn’t feel like kindergarten would be that good for him, and we enjoyed having him around . . . so we kept him home. That year we just kept on doing the same kinds of things we’d always done together as a family, and it was fine. Then when the new school year arrived we wanted to stick with that routine, so we filed a home education plan like the state wanted us to. The next thing we knew, we were homeschooling three boys age ten, eight, and five! Amazing.

Only that’s not really the real story. And anyone who sends their kids to school can probably spot the clues in that first paragraph. Like, why didn’t our son go to preschool? How did we ever think that “just keeping him home” was an option? And why on earth did we want to?! Really, our thoughts about the childhood we hoped he could have were non-standard from the beginning. And that’s despite the fact that I’m trained in Elementary Education and worked in public schools.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT HOMESCHOOLING

One important reason we home educate is that we like being with our kids. We’ve been lucky enough to have flexible work schedules to make that happen—my wife, Leah, was home when the first two boys were little, then we each worked part time for the “preschool” years, and now she’s working full time while I hold things down at home. I enjoy doing things with my kids, and I want to make sure that they’re able to do the things that they find important and valuable. Also, we don’t want to waste their time! I’m 100% committed to the existence of public schooling as a public good, and I think most public school teachers are fantastic people—but schools require kids to be there in that building for six or seven hours a day to get maybe an hour of relevant instructional time. It’s better for them to be free of those walls.

Our home education is shaped by two sometimes competing impulses. First is our belief that kids are human beings with an inbuilt drive to learn, and with the capacity—and right!—to make many decisions for themselves. (I keep John Holt’s How Children Learn and Agnes Leistico’s I Learn Better By Teaching Myself on the bookshelf above my desk to remind myself of that when I start to get stressed out.) I recognize that a big part of learning comes through play: For example, I’ve had moments of despair at failed attempts to get my kids writing, but then I notice them playing with little figures and narrating a complex, multi-character story. Learning also needs to be driven by genuine interest: Nobody can learn something they don’t care about.

At the same time, though, I am trained as a teacher and sometimes I like teaching things. So I don’t think you could really call us unschoolers. A few days a week we have some organized instructional time, all together or one-on-one. Some weeks it’s every day! Sometimes there are even worksheets. But that more formal work is always conditional on the kids’ voluntary engagement: I try to make it explicit that they don’t have to participate if they’re not interested (though sometimes the frustration in my voice when I say it undercuts the message—something I have to work on!). In my more self-aware moments I call our less-inspired instructional time “playing school” and recognize that, at best, it’s giving the kids tools to do their own learning later. But sometimes it brings real engagement in the moment. Like this week when our study of reproduction and genetics led to the creation of a pencil-and-paper game that had us breeding monsters for the next two days.

I think what I love most about home education is flexibility. When it’s rainy and there’s nothing to do, we can read books together and talk about them. Maybe something in a book will inspire us to do some drawing. Or maybe we’ll just play a board game. On sunshiny days anyone who wants to can be outside for hours, observing—even if only in passing and by accident—the natural world. Sometimes math instruction is practicing times tables (is there any way to learn basic multiplication facts except by doing them over and over?), but sometimes it’s building a picnic table and calculating the angle to cut the pieces for the legs. How many degrees are in a triangle? I’m not good at planning, so I’m happy to come up with a general idea—talking about reproduction, say—and see where it takes us.

I also feel that it’s incredibly valuable for my kids to be able to learn as individuals. Even beyond their particular interests, which they may or may not be able to develop in a school setting, school norms would force them into possibly uncomfortable boxes. Watching the three of them grow up I see that their learning and development doesn’t move forward in a linear way but in fits and starts, and at different rates for each of them. Because of that, I can’t think of them as a “fifth-grader,” a “third-grader,” and a “kindergartener,” and compare them to their peers in each of those grades. Neither of my older two boys learned to read before their second-grade year, which would have meant hours and hours of separate reading instruction had they been in school; now they both spend endless time absorbed in books. And I don’t even have to call that a success story: In the home education setting, not liking to read would also be fine! Home education lets each child really be themselves.

HOMESCHOOLING CHALLENGES

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges! Some challenges are wrapped up with the same things that attracted me to this lifestyle in the first place. Flexibility, for example, goes both ways. It can be hard to abandon my designs for the day when it’s clear the kids need something else. And sometimes it’s hard to come up with any ideas of what to do! If there was a plan that we had to follow—if somebody else was telling us what to do—then at least I wouldn’t have to worry about coming up with all the ideas. Also, as the “education planner” in the household, I sometimes struggle with knowing when to intervene: Should I work to make sure my ten-year-old can write his numbers the right way around, or to encourage my six-year-old to use a “proper” pencil grip? If I don’t teach them math am I allowing them to develop their interest in the subject naturally and organically, or am I denying them the foundation they need to discover a love of more complicated mathematics later? I don’t know.

Enjoying spending time with the kids can also lead to challenges: If I didn’t like being with them, I wouldn’t need to work so hard to engage them! Lots of people with kids in school imagine home education means my kids are asking me what to do all the time; that is not the case. Most of the time they’re happy to ignore me and do their own thing together or individually. That dynamic also interacts with my teacher sensibilities. When I think there’s something they would enjoy learning then I need to work hard to present it in a way that will draw them in. And sometimes it’s a complete bust anyway! It’s discouraging to come up with what I think is a fascinating project or outing that, when offered, doesn’t elicit anything more than a vague “no thanks” from behind a book. On the other side of the coin, sometimes it’s hard for me to see value in what they’re choosing to do because it’s different than what I would choose. Screen time, for example, is an ongoing issue in our house that hasn’t yet been entirely resolved by democratic and non-coercive means.

There’s also some stress around other people’s expectations. People asking if our six-year-old is reading, for example, or offering pointed questions about “socialization.” Not to mention reporting and state standards! A few years ago, for my annual progress report to the school district, I sent in a writing sample for my oldest son. He had worked so hard on the skills it took to be able to write out an entire page, and I was so proud of him. In the letter we got back from the school district, the only personalized note—the only personalized response we’ve ever received in four years of reporting—was a suggestion to look into tools for online spelling practice. Sometimes all those expectations get to me, and I find myself saying things to the kids like, “I know you don’t want to, but you absolutely must produce something that the state will see as learning.” That’s dumb, right?

Because, really, I know that they’re learning all the time (even if I sometimes need John Holt to remind me). They learned to ride bikes, to swim, to draw and write comic books, to wash dishes, to make jigsaw puzzles, to know when to walk away from a friend who’s making bad choices. And I didn’t teach them any of that! Although I did offer tips on the jigsaw puzzles and, more pointedly, the dishes. I do get to teach them some things—about seeds and eggs, about converting fractions into decimals, about our country’s history of racism, about the poems that I love. Put it all together, and it’s totally worth it. In our house, education isn’t something that happens somewhere else, separate from the rest of our life. It’s just another part of everything we do together as we work, play, relax, and adventure together. And I love it!

PARTING WORDS

Should everyone have their kids learn at home? Lots of the time I think that, yes, of course they should! But I also think that everyone should keep chickens and travel by bicycle and listen to weird music and go to bed when it gets dark. My personal preferences, that is to say, are sometimes idiosyncratic. I recognize that for many people the reality of jobs and schedules means that there’s no time to think about organizing home education. That’s fine! Despite some strong words above, I think public school is a great option. I liked most of my own time there, both as a student and as a teacher. But when parents tell me, “I could never teach my own kids!” I have to disagree. If you want to, you can! You’re already teaching them all the most important things in their lives. And all the rest—math, history, science—is just learning together!

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