Friday, May 28, 2010

Measuring Success

 Have these last three months been successful? How does a homeschooler measure success? When we began this journey, I worried how we would know if SJ was improving. Every paper eventually reaches "A" status. Every missed math problem gets corrected. Grades are fairly moot in our homeschool.

I have to admit that I occasionally still have a moment of wonder when I hear of what the "school kids" are memorizing. For a moment, I worry that he is missing something until I recall the vast difference between memorizing stuff for tests and learning. Success for me must be measured by what I observe, the changes in SJ's demeanor, the little risks he takes in thinking on his own, in formulating opinions, and the evidence of wisdom and stature.

For one who hates to read, he is practically begging me to read more chapters of Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. For one who, in the past, didn't understand complicated assignments, I watched as he explained longitude and latitude to his 20 year old sister, even going so far as to pull out his paper and plot a few more coordinates. For one who lamented the boring-ness of history, he sure seemed interested in The History of Us, vying for TV time during school hours to watch it. For one who used to think that he needed to do paintball or skateboard to be cool, I watched as he finished a mountain bike race in third place, celebrating his win by proudly wearing his medal for the entire evening. Words are inadequate to describe the subtle progress of this one's spirit. Yes, we've found success here. This is working for my little guy.

Right now I am working on my plan for next year. I have found a few things that make me excited will excite SJ to no end. In fact, he has already asked for one book, Game Design for Teens. Some reviewers even recommended the book for kids as young as ten which tells me that it is probably fairly comprehensible and intuitive. From what I can tell, it teaches basic computer language and culminates in the design of a basic video game--for the not super serious gamers. Perfect.

We are also excited to enter the world of chemistry and physics. This is where this family shines (excluding mom) with hands-on experimentation. For this, I am really hoping my homeschool group will authorize the purchase of a Lego Mindstorm kit. Legos already occupy an ample portion of SJ's room. To teach physics and robotics and engineering through them, well, that would just be heaven. I can already imagine my 16 year old plopped on the floor next to his brother working to create the next best robot.

How about you? How do you measure your homeschool success? What are your favorite methods of teaching history and writing? As you close out your own year, I would love to hear your successes as well.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Learning Trumps Telling

Hopefully, you watched the clip in my last post, Making Math Real. What I loved about Dan Meyer's teaching method is a cornerstone of what I believe about education and learning in general. Until it makes an iota of sense, and I mean in a global sense, to a student, the lesson is akin to Snoopy-talk--a series of meaningless words.

In testing  my theory,  I have to study my own life as it is my best experimental laboratory. How do I learn? What makes the difference between information I deposit and discard? If it isn't important to me or related to something I want to know about, my husband will attest that my eyes practically roll back in my head. He knows this first-hand as he has attempted over the years to fill me with engineering-ish minutia such as bicycle componentry and specifications. All I care about on a bike is that it has two inflated tires, working brakes, and gears that will make it easier for me to climb hills. In other words, I really don't care about the rest. No amount of telling me is going to motivate me to plant that information anywhere but on the cutting room floor.

Our kids are getting this kind of forced telling in school everyday. I'm not saying much of it isn't important but in the memorizing and the writing of it, are they really learning anything? I just watched my sophomore son work through a major project for his history class. He had to choose a current world issue, write a paragraph on his intent to research the topic, make an outline, and write an essay. He chose terrorism. Interesting topic. Lots of great information out there. Great opportunity to learn something about his world. But in the end could he tell me anything about terrorism other than the fact that dudes kill each other? No. He was just cranking out the work. He hasn't been touched (he doesn't think) by terrorism so he had little motivation to make connections between his assignment and his world.

It's a delicate process, searching for the thing that lights our students' fires, and not an easy one. I am fortunate to have just one student. Still it is a daily process of watching, listening, guiding, and taking opportunities when they present themselves while at the same time not squelching the interest in my zeal to take advantage of it.

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D. and an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada has a great piece on this topic in Psychology Today. In his article, "Education is Not the Filling of the Pail, but the Lighting of a Fire", he says this, "Without an emotional response on the part of the student, without sparking the students' interest, it's doubtful there will be a fire for learning."

I'm seeing this is true with SJ, too. I find I can get him to accomplish a whole lot more if I can tie a lesson to something he is excited about. That is why, a week after he mentioned how good he was at writing fantasy stories, he was asked to work on character sketches for three fantasy characters. (Note the week delay between interest and assignment--sneaky, right?) My reluctant writer tackled that project first that day and didn't even stop to think that he was having a lesson.

Are we hitting every standard the state mandates and in the order they propose? I am sure we are not. But is he learning something? I am positive that he is. I am not saying this is easy and there are days when I panic because my son might not be able to name the layers of the earth's core by memory. When this happens, I have to remind myself that I brought him home to learn and what he learns is always going to be far more valuable than what he memorizes.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Making Math Real

Revolutionary math teacher Dan Meyer brings math textbooks to life to engage his students. Now if I can just glean and apply his methods. It makes so much sense.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What have we done to curiosity?

Through this process of homeschooling, I have opened a never-ending discussion in my head regarding the differences between teaching and learning. We often use the terms interchangeably as we discuss our children's schooling. "What are you teaching them?" assumes "What are they learning?" Reality is teaching me (and I am learning) that the two are quite different.

Until a kid wants to learn, I can teach until forever and never connect. We know this. Yet we continue to harbor a school system that teaches its way to The Test each year, losing our kids' interest and curiosity along the way.

Consider the typical discipline issues a science teacher must deal with. Let's say each student has been given a straw, a rubber band, a 1/4 cup of water and a piece of paper. On each desk is a worksheet with clear instructions that will draw the student to an intended conclusion. Instead of following the directions, Charlie snips his straw in half and the battle begins:

"Charlie, why did you snip the straw in half? The directions stated the experiment will  only work with the whole straw."
 "Charlie? Perhaps you should head to the principal's office."
From a teacher's perspective, I get this. In a classroom of thirty plus students, one must maintain a sense of unity and power. But what if Charlie just wanted to know what would happen if he cut the straw in half? What if he were *gasp* curious?  How did Edison discover the light bulb? He had to try a ton of stuff. He had to first be curious. Have we become so intent on the teaching that we have disallowed our kids the opportunity to learn?

I am not dissing teachers. They have an impossible job. How can we move to correct this travesty in public school? What do you think?

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Best Mother's Day Gift Ever!

Given the option of a few bucks with which to choose a card and gift for me or doing something else, SJ chose the something else. His dad warned him then, "It better not be lame."

It wasn't. It was a homemade card, fairly typical of those I have received in year's past. What was different was the inside...a full panel of writing. This may not seem like a big deal to many, but to this mom, and to this child who is known for his writing reluctance, it was huge. And it wasn't just rambling but an attempt at thought and prose. My favorite line might have been the one mentioning that I am a homeschool teacher, "which I am very good at." Big smile, with a tear.

It warms my heart to think we have made progress in the writing arena after trying a few super secret simple techniques. The first I read in The Homeschool Magazine's Winter 09/10 edition. It's a long article but in "Three Keys to Teaching Writing," Danielle Orlander shows how to help a child basically rewrite an existing text using a key word outline, restating ideas from memory, and then reconstructing the paragraph. It might seem like cheating but how often, in college did we have to extrapolate text to use in research papers? This technique showed how to find the main ideas and put them in one's own words without plagiarizing. SJ and I used text from a bicycling handbook one day and from a medieval history book the next. In both instances, SJ's paragraph was twice as long as the original and he was shocked to note how easily he had written nearly half a page.

The other idea I gleaned from a homeschool blog (sorry, I can't remember which one). SJ got a new racing-worthy bike this week, complete with clipless pedals, and I knew he was proud of his first real mountain bike ride. We had taken a few photos along the way, so I copied the photos into a Word document, wrote Who? What? Why? Where? When? How? on his white board, and asked him to narrate the photos. It took him less than ten minutes and as he proudly pointed out, he tried a new point-of-view (He wrote it like a news story in third person) all on his own. We will work on editing this week but wow. No one told me how satisfying it would be to feel moments of success!

Disclaimer: Lest you think I come to these ideas on my own, let me correct the record to note that none comes without copious time in prayer and supplication. I am simply being obedient.