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To Infinity and Beyond

Today I sat with my granddaughter while she did her 1st grade school work.  As she correctly sounded out unfamiliar words, she smiled up at me with her adorable toothless grin that is in desperate need of two front teeth. As she continued to read, my mind drifted back to another 1st grader who would smile up at me as he slowly plodded along, sound by sound, struggling to read even the simplest of words. His labored reading was a scenario that continued from 1st into 2nd and even on into 3rd and 4th grades, yet his ever-present smile always exuded confidence that never wavered.  He was oblivious to how delayed his reading skills were. He just kept plugging away with confidence that one day he would be reading through piles of books. Inside, however, I was acutely aware of just how severe his dyslexia was.

He is a young man now. He is currently occupying my thoughts because this week marks the end of his undergraduate education. On Saturday he will be graduating Summa Cum Laude and as a Distinguished Undergraduate Scholar with his Bachelor’s degrees in physics and math.  If you could have told me back when his adorable face grinned up at me when he was 7, 8, and 9 that one day he would graduate from college never having earned a single college grade below an A, I am not sure whether I would have believed you or not.

He was a little paradox.  While he struggled with reading, his math and problem solving skills constantly caught me off-guard.  One day when he was six, we were baking cookies and he shared a discovery he had made. As we were spooning the cookie dough onto the cookie sheet, he told me that if we made 5 rows of 4 cookies there would be 20 cookies on the pan.  I stopped mid-scoop and started paying more attention to what he was sharing.  He went on to tell me that 6 rows of 3 window panes made 18 and 7 rows of 3 cars made 21.  His precociousness in math was as dominant a force in his education as his struggles in reading.

His experience highlights one of the most precious gifts that homeschooling can provide–an individualized education that meets the needs of the child without any regard to institutionalized norms and pacing.  When he was 10, I would read him the word problems in his algebra text.  His math skills had rapidly advanced ahead of both “grade level standards” and his reading abilities.  So, while he was completing algebra, he was still struggling with reading fairly simple chapter books.  That unbalanced scenario continued  until his reading skills finally started to match his grade level.  Then, with equal rapidity as his math progression, he started functioning beyond grade level across all areas (except spelling….spelling is still his nemesis, even today.)

His academic progression was dictated by no constraints other than those of his own abilities.  The fact that he had been working at a remedial level in elementary school did not dictate his future progression.  When he was ready to accelerate and master skills like composition that had been severely impacted by his reading level, we were able to jump right in and move at whatever pace he was ready to handle. Consequently, even though he had struggled for all those years in learning how to read, by the time he graduated from high school, he had not only taken but also thrived in advanced courses in literature, philosophy, theology as well as 300 level courses in math and physics.

This Saturday a special red honors cap will adorn his curly-topped head. I easily envision his beaming grin as he walks across the stage to receive his diploma. As my thoughts whirl in flashes of his childhood, I am thankful for the blessing that homeschooling provided him.  Snail’s pace or leaps and bounds, his education matched what he personally needed.  It allowed him to confidently thrive and provided him the foundation for his future.

Next year, this young man, who struggled so much with reading when he was little, will be the first in our family to pursue a PhD.  His future goals lie in the cosmos–theoretical cosmology, that is.  Who knows where his grinning determination will take him?  To infinity and beyond.

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Designing a Course: China

Designing courses around topics my kids want to learn more about is at the heart of how our homeschool functions. So when this question appeared in my inbox,

Would you be willing to share the books you use for history of China? It has been a frequent request of my kids but I’m having a hard time finding books that are appropriate and beyond Marco Polo and the Great Wall.

it made me smile because the question brought back wonderful memories of a study I did with my daughter a few years ago.

The poster did not provide any information on the ages of her children, but the study I did with my daughter was when she was in middle school.  I built the study around a book that I had used with my oldest son when he was a middle schooler,  China Under Communism  by Michael Kort. Back then, when I was looking for a book on China, every non-adult book I found had glossed over the history of the country.  I wanted a factual book, but not one that was inaccessible to a middle school student. I finally found what I was looking for in Kort’s book.

For my daughter, who wanted to delve into China’s history in greater depth, I fleshed out the study with a broader range of books while still keeping Kurt’s book at the center.

I decided to add the novel Red Scarf Girl.  I searched Facing History and Ourselves (scroll down that page and take a peek) hoping to find resources to supplement the book. I had used the site several times before for other history studies, and I was not disappointed. Not only did they have teaching resources for Red Scarf Girl but they also had pages of additional resources. I won’t expand on what else we used from their site; I’ll leave that for families to peruse for their own family’s needs.

One other resource I’ll mention due to its fabulous artwork is Ancient China. (It is one of the books in Time Life’s Great Ages of Man series, A History of the World’s Cultures.) I own several of the Time Life book series.  I absolutely love them because they are full of so many wonderful images. My younger kids will pull the books off the shelves just to look through the pictures; the books have the additional benefit of making great supplements for older kids (who also like to look at pictures!)

Hopefully these ideas will help guide you toward resources for a greater exploration beyond the Great Wall and Marco Polo.  Enjoy the journey!

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Too Little? Too Much? Too Easy? Too Hard?

 


My question has to do with how to know if what you’re doing is enough – it’s really difficult to predict in the midst of it all how things might turn out, and of course it’s impossible to actually know until it’s over. I often find myself struggling to know when to push harder and when to relax. I worry that I’ll get to the end and find that my kids are very unprepared for the life ahead of them because I was too lenient in my requirements and expectations during their school years. But at the same time I worry that doing too much will just be detrimental rather than helpful. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

This question is at the very crux of our parental responsibility when we decide to be their primary educators, is it not?  When we peel back the layers of what is being done day-to-day, the core issue is summed up as to whether or not an appropriate education is being provided to those children who are entrusting their future to our decisions.

As overwhelming as those words sound and as awesome as that responsibility is, stepping back and looking at our families from the outside and forming a long distance perspective will help.  All educational outcomes do not have to be achieved in a single day.  We have 13 academic years to prepare them for adulthood.  So, if we keep that long distance perspective, the question then becomes how do we narrow in on a single academic year or even a single academic day?  Baby steps. Really.

Think back to when you were first handed your beautiful newborns. Were your first thoughts centered around developing a plan for x number of hours per day on directed muscle development in order to get them rolling as soon as possible? Or when they were belly crawlers, did you create an exercise plan to get them up on all four so they would crawl sooner with the intent that if they crawled sooner, then you could get them to move more rapidly toward walking? Or did you (hopefully!) recognize that each child develops in their own natural rhythm.  We can rejoice when little Suzy next door starts running at 9 months while being 100% comfortable when our own little 9 month old isn’t. We know that little ones develop at their own rate and that there is a very broad range of normal development.  We know that if certain milestones aren’t being reached by certain ages, then intensive interventions might be necessary.  However, intervention isn’t our first, natural response.

Homeschooling is very much like recognizing that natural development we immediately recognize in babies.  When we step back and look at the big picture, it is easier to create a realistic baby step approach for getting from non-reader to AP student.  We don’t have to have 8 hours of pre-K academics in order to achieve high academic standards.  Long academic days do not meet the very real developmental needs of a pre-K child.  Young children need to play, run, explore, not sit at a desk like a miniature adult.  Keeping child development in the forefront of our mind enables us to focus on balancing the needs of the whole child–physical, mental, and spiritual–and not hyper-focus on just the mental.

Creating general end-of-year goals at the beginning of the school year not only helps keep us on track but also lowers our stress about whether or not we are doing enough.  These goals don’t have to be complicated eduspeak objectives.  They can be simple, easily quantified goals that encompass appropriate skills.  For example, solid end of the year goals for an average kindergartener might be

  • correctly forming letters while holding the pencil correctly
  • reading simple 3 letter short vowel sound words
  • adding digits that add up to 10,
  • recognizing the numbers 1-100, etc.

Having broad target objectives for an entire year in our mind as we go through our single school day allows us to relax and just focus on that day. We don’t have to master 1-100 today.  Today, we can master the small, single task in front of us.

My end of the year goals have never been the same for any of my kids because not a single one of them has been like another.  I have had a 6th grader where writing comparative essays by the end of 6th was a realistic goal.  I have also had a 6th grader where writing a cohesive, logical paragraph was a realistic goal. How did I know which was which and if it wasn’t just a matter of needing more pushing? I taught them every single day of their lives.  I knew that one mastered everything easily.  I also knew the other one struggled with everything. Both always wanted to do their best.  Their best just didn’t match up with anyone’s abilities or expectations other than the ones they individually possessed. I didn’t make either one work longer than the other.  It wouldn’t have made any difference.  Focused, attentive work that is developing new skills is hard for any individual.  It doesn’t matter if for one student that focus is on an essay, and for the other student the focus is on forming a good topic sentence. For both, it is hard work.  The end of the school day was the end of the school day. They were still 11/12 yr olds that needed time to exercise, play, and develop the other parts of their lives that did not connect directly to their academic work.

I have found around an hour of solid academic focus per grade level has been appropriate for my kids.  For my first graders that would mean about an hour to an hour and a half of focused math, phonics, reading, and writing.  My 3rd graders spend about 3 1/2 hours on focused academics, 6th graders about 6.  Where this hour/grade level starts not to work is late middle school to high school.  Those grades can range from 7-9 hours per day.  It depends on the student, their goals, and how much they are pushing themselves.  (My problem has been having to tell my older kids, no, they can’t take on more.  I haven’t had the problem of students not wanting to complete the work that they have.)

Not sure if that is an answer that helps or not.  Perspective.  Individual goals. Long-range view. All of those form my daily objectives.  But, more importantly, I want to make sure that I never lose sight of the fact that they are children who need to develop their whole–body, mind, soul—not just students.

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Looking Forward. Looking Back.

I love this image.  It captures my life and my heart.  These two best friends encompass the past, the present, and the future.  One is my daughter and one is my granddaughter.

When I reflect on this picture, I can’t help but think about my granddaughter’s father, my oldest son, when he was around this age.  He was such an inquisitive little boy, a constant tinkerer.  He was always building something.  He constantly wanted to know how things worked.  His busyness was one of the greatest blessings in my life because it was the impetus behind our pursuing homeschooling.

Back in 1994 when we embarked on this homeschool adventure, it was an experiment for us filled with unknowns and undefined outcomes.  Homeschooling was a completely foreign concept, and we had never even heard of it until the day we decided to accept the challenge. Now, 24 years later, five of our children have graduated from our homeschool.

The hindsight view is clearly defined.  Our homeschool as defined by outside perspectives has been an academic success. A chemical engineer, an employed full-time disabled adult, an occupational therapy assistant, a PhD physics grad student, and a Top Scholar undergrad later, the questions about where their homeschool journeys would lead them have been answered.  Our homeschool as defined by our parental views is one of even greater pride.  Our adult children are amazing people who daily fill us with thanksgiving at having the honor of being their parents.

Our younger three children are still active participants in this Wonderland adventure.  Each day, as their homeschool parent, I acknowledge that awesome responsibility of being their primary educator and commit myself to being their teacher. Their current daily lives will ultimately influence their futures.  It is my responsibility to be constantly aware of the impact that our educational choices will have on their ability to pursue their goals.

Looking forward toward their futures, I take the same approach that I did with their older siblings.  Homeschooling is not for the passive participant.  We are daily navigating a journey, not just pursuing a destination.