Homeschooling

Good Times with my Big Girl

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The positive effects of Mr. Boo attending his new learning centre twice a week continue to ripple throughout our family. One of the many great things is that now I have two full days a week to spend alone with Miss Em. We’ve been making the most of it, especially with this wonderful weather we’ve been having.

First, we set out for a walk and some geocaching. I used to go on woods walks with the kids when they were little, but when they got a bit older the whining started and I soon learned that if I wanted to enjoy myself and not come home drained and frazzled, I’d best go by myself! But lately she has decided that maybe walking isn’t so bad, and with geocaching she gets to enjoy the thrill of the hunt as well. One of the things I like about geocaching is that you get to see places you probably wouldn’t know about or go to otherwise. We found some lovely trails not too far from here, and logged 4 cache finds that day. Here she is perched on a large stump, tucked into the side of which was one of the caches we found.

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The next day I took her to see a special concert by the Victoria Symphony that was put on for school-aged children. We arrived at the theatre to see about half a dozen huge school buses unloading hordes of kids. It was chaos! We homeschoolers also had a section reserved, and it was great fun to pass through the yelling teachers and children marching in line to get to our group. We were well represented, with two rows of seats taken up by homeschoolers! The concert was themed on Nature. Miss Em recognized Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Greig’s Peer Gynt (“that morning song”), and we especially enjoyed the final number: John Williams’ theme to Jurassic Park.

The day after that, Mr. Boo was back at “school” (despite the negative connotations that word has for homeschoolers, it’s the simplest way to refer to it) and me and Miss Em took a field trip to the Royal Museum of BC in Victoria. We went with a mother-and-son duo: I’m great friends with the mum and Miss Em is great friends with the son, so much fun was had! The kids wandered through the galleries, and the grownups followed – it’s the first time I’ve been there and been able to look at exhibits I’m interested in, even if my kids aren’t!

The photo below shows the kids at a photographic exhibit – this station asked them to come up with thoughts about what happened before or after the photo was taken. Miss Em ignored their instructions and drew a picture of a lion (since the photo had lions). I noticed that a few other kids had skipped the instructions and done their own thing on the papers provided. I thought it was funny: I think these “educational” activities are often rather contrived, and the kids saw right through it. It was fun to see a few other rebel souls doing their own thing with the exhibit!

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After seeing the exhibits we watched an IMAX movie about the Mars Mission, then headed to a nearby Board Game cafe. I’ve never been to one before and it was very cool. They had hundreds of board games, many that were relatively new and modern, and for a flat rate you can stay and play as long as you want. It’s a great way to try out a game before you buy it, and there is a small cafe too. We dropped the kids off there and went to a nearby Oyster Bar for a “buck a shuck” special. I absolutely love raw oysters and it was a very special treat to indulge (another bonus of not bringing the younger child)! When we got back to the cafe, we decided to play Cards Against Humanity with the kids. Fortunately, both our families are very open with our kids about sexuality (as in, we answer any and all questions matter-of-factly) and while a few of the cards drew some blushes, we had a great time and many laughs (and Miss Em won!).

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I have to confess that the respite earned by having Mr. Boo at the learning centre has shown me just how difficult a task I was faced with trying to homeschool both kids. His limitations in terms of what he can tolerate, and my tendency to shy away from situations where he might act out in public, have affected our homeschooling in ways I probably wasn’t ready to admit. For Miss Em and myself, it has meant more time together, and more outings doing things that I would not normally be able to do with him in tow. This past week has been really wonderful, and I’m so happy to have these opportunities.

 

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Categories: family life, Homeschooling, Miss Em | Leave a comment

What exactly is a Learning Centre, anyway?

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In my last post, I talked about the new learning centre that Mr. Boo is attending. Some people might be confused about how a learning centre fits in with the concept of homeschooling, so I thought it might be helpful to discuss the role of learning centres in homeschooling.

Families who choose homeschooling are usually dissatisfied with the school system, and often try to avoid duplicating the classroom environment. However, as local homeschooling communities grow, they soon realize that having a place you can go – to hang out, learn together, do crafting or chemistry experiments, or listen to a local expert do a show and tell about something interesting – can be very handy. In my years of homeschooling I’ve been involved in several attempts to find such a place, and it can be challenging.

The facility needs to be available during the day, child friendly and preferably baby-proof since the families attending have kids of all ages, have tables and chairs that can be set up as needed, a kitchenette is very handy, and storage is an often overlooked need. It gets really tedious to cart bins of projects and supplies back and forth, and families have to shuffle them around when they can’t attend due to illness or whatever.

If someone has a suitable home, with enough room for everybody, that is a possible solution. But it puts a lot of pressure on the host family, and if they are ill or otherwise unavailable it can mean a cancelled day.

The next step up is to find a community space, but as anyone who has been involved in a non-profit organization knows, such spaces are usually costly. Parents may chip in for the cost, or if the families belong to the same funded homeschooling program (here in BC they are called Distributed Learning programs), that program may provide some funding for the space. Our DL program supported our community in setting up such a space a couple of years ago, but it lasted only one year due to rising rental and insurance costs for the facility, lack of other options in our area, and changes to the DL funding policies. It also required a huge amount of work on the part of the parents involved, and ultimately it folded.

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Another challenge for homeschoolers often occurs when the children reach adolescence. While the younger set is happy to participate in family-oriented get togethers with children of all ages, the older kids like to be around other kids closer in age to themselves, with activities that are geared toward their interests. They also love a bit of independence thrown in, such as the ability to go across the street to a coffee shop to grab some pastries! We had a great teen group in our area that met in the centre of a small town where the kids could walk to nearby shops; the space was comfy and had a kitchen and was a great hang out for the parents and kids. Sadly, we lost the space and some of the families “aged out” and it hasn’t been put back together just yet.

The next step beyond a parent-organized space is a learning centre that is run by an organization. Such a centre might best be described a small private school that is geared towards homeschoolers, who generally only want part time programs, perhaps one or two days a week at the most, and who are not looking for school-style academic instruction, but support and facilitation for project-based and learner-directed learning. We are very fortunate in our area to have a number of such centres sprouting up here. They offer a wide range of programs, workshops, and activities for homeschooling families. Some require enrolment on a term-by-term basis whereas others operate on a drop-in basis. Some invite entire families to participate, while others provide full child supervision and parents can just drop the kids off and go.

 

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Finally, there is the issue of homelearners with special needs. The incidence of autism is such that learning centres and special schools for kids with autism are popping up all over the place, it seems. There are two such schools in our area, though they are both a long commute away for us. Also, when I last enquired, they did not allow part-time attendance, which rules them out as desirable options for many homeschooling families. Because families in BC with children on the autism spectrum are eligible for funding from various sources, such programs are usually set up to accept direct funding from those sources.

The distinction between “learning centre” and “small private school” can get a bit blurry. I use the term “school” to refer to a program that runs 4 or 5 days a week, enrols children on a term or semester basis, is not set up for whole families to participate, and has a program of learning and activities that is set up by the administrators and in which full participation is generally required in order to attend. I use the term “learning centre” to refer to a facility that is set up for families to come together with children of all ages for activities related to learning, or a more school-like situation that is only available on a part-time basis (once or twice a week).

In summary, every learning centre is different. They range from programs designed and executed entirely by the parents for no other reason than they wanted to make it happen, to government-funded programs run by organizations that offer alternative educational opportunities. Learning centres can be a valuable way for local homeschoolers to come together and connect, to learn together and grow as a community. They can also provide support for homeschooling parents who are finding it difficult to keep up with their kids’ growing interests, or who need respite for whatever reason.

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Categories: Education, Homeschooling, rethinking education | 1 Comment

Project-Based Homeschooling: Master Class

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Last year at this time I wanted to try Project-Based Homeschooling. I thought I would do it once a week, one hour for each child. But I didn’t really get it: I tried wrapping it up with my own agendas for their learning in a quid-pro-quo type of arrangement. Then Life got in the way: Husband’s career was in flux, I took on a lot more part-time work, and PBH kind of fell by the wayside.

Fast forward to this past Spring, and I’m having an attack of Periodic Unschooling Panic Disorder, or PUPD. Miss Em has about 10 projects on the go in various stages of completion, some of which have been gathering virtual dust for months, and I begin to despair that she will never learn how to finish anything. Top that off with her first paid assignment as a web designer, whereby her grandmother offers her an inflated hourly wage to create a simple website for a recent business venture and it only gets done as a result of constant nagging on my part, and I’m convinced my future adult child will never hold down a job. Just to put that in perspective, she was not even 12 years old at this point. And then there is Mr. Boo, who insists he wants to learn Java and start making his own computer games despite the fact that, as yet, he has nowhere near the kind of drive, perseverance, and patience for such a venture.

While wondering how I could help my kids manage and finish projects, I stumbled across the PBH website again, did some more reading, and realized that this might be just the thing we all needed to move forward. I bought the e-book, read it, and loved it. I liked the Facebook page, began following the discussion threads, lurked around in the forums, and became more convinced that I needed to do this. Not just for them, but for myself, too.

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Having finally gotten a handle on that elusive work-life balance issue (not resolved by any means, but manageable) I decided this year I was going to do PBH and do it right. Three times a week, one hour per child, completely self-directed and no we-do-your-project-idea-and-then-you-do-mine. I was so enthusiastic and excited…and yet so worried that I would not be able to see it through. Forming new habits is hard, and I find schedules almost impossible to stick to when self-imposed. Enter the PBH Master Class.

Lori, founder and guru of PBH, announced that she would be offering another Master Class this fall and after mulling it over in my head for a few days, I decided I really needed to do this. The class delves deep into PBH over a period of six weeks. I wanted to go deeper into the subject myself, but I also knew that if I was immersed in the class there was a much greater chance that I would follow through with my new plans, and by the time the class was over it would hopefully be established as a new habit.

I’m loving the course so far. We’ve begun with journaling as a way to be more mindful of our children’s interests, to observe their learning, to document what they are doing. While I am not yet mastering the art of journaling every day, I have created some entries, begun using a sticky-note system (on my smartphone, and with actual sticky notes on my desk), and am generally just being more conscious about talking to my kids about their interests. When you have older kids who do much of their work alone or in their room, it’s easy to miss out on so much of what they are working on, exploring, thinking about, wanting to learn. By regularly checking in with them I am not only getting a better feel for what they are up to, but they are responding to my interest, being the focus of my attention, and my efforts to help without interfering.

I will be posting about my own progress in the class and what I’m learning, as well as posting about the kids’ projects. We’re only one week into it, but I’m feeling pretty good about it all, and excited about where we can go with this.

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Categories: Homeschooling, Personal Growth, Project Based Homeschooling | 1 Comment

The Future of Education, Today

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This post was inspired by a recent post over at The No-School Kids. It’s a wonderful, meaty read, questioning why homeschooling is rapidly increasing in popularity, and relating it to the modern, technological age. This quote gives a taste of the article:

I think these issues of technology changing our relationship to information, changing our jobs and economy, and therefore changing how we want educate our kids — these are real reasons for the growth of the homeschooling movement in my lifetime.

Reading this, I was prompted to put down some thoughts that have been percolating in my own mind lately.

The idea that the internet and the new economy are game-changers when it comes to “what your kid needs to know” is not new. In one of the most popular TED talks to date, Sir Ken Robinson highlighted the importance of creativity and the lack of emphasis on creativity in schools (the title of his talk was “How Schools Kill Creativity”).

In another popular TED talk, Sugata Mitra demonstrated that, using technology, kids can teach themselves what they need to know without the help of any adults. Here is a quote from Sugata Mitra that is particularly relevant to the subject of today’s post:

Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardized curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time. Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain — to be used when needed. The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are. Schools ensure their storage and retrieval. Students are rewarded for memorization, not imagination or resourcefulness.  – Sugata Mitra

I’m drawn to this subject because of my experiences watching my children use the Internet to learn. They approach learning in a very different way than I approached it (or, more accurately, how it was presented to me) in school. There is the ability to seek out information, yes, but then there is the ability to process it in myriad ways that were not readily available to us back in my day. Rather than a smattering of subject matter broken down into neat blocks of time that rotate throughout the week, my kids immerse themselves in a subject, exploring it in ways that are different for each child but far broader than the usual concept of read-book-memorize-facts. Their learning is more discussion-based, more exploratory, and facts are just stuff that gets stuck in their head along the way by virtue of being used and encountered frequently. Fan sites, discussion forums, YouTube channels, websites, wikis, and blog rings provide different ways to explore a topic, to turn it around in your mind and share others’ perspectives. This is idea-generating learning, the kind that is needed in order to take advantage of today’s opportunities, and those in the near future.

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Learning online is not just limited to global conversations, however. Who doesn’t wish to immerse themselves in technical details when it comes to their passions? Enter the online video course. My first encounter with such a learning platform was through my own use of the Craftsy website. Craftsy offers courses in sewing, quilting, knitting, and other crafts presented in video lesson format. Lessons are broken down into separate videos that students watch on their own time, at their own pace. It’s easy to skip back a few seconds and listen again to something the student may have missed, or to see a particular technique being demonstrated over and over (using the 30-second loop function). In addition, it allows for the student to insert notes at any point in the video, which can later be used to quickly access the exact point in the video relating to that subject. Not only can questions be posted to the instructor, who usually replies within a couple of days, but students can also reply or comment on the questions. There are forums in which students and the instructor can engage in detailed discussions about any aspect of the course, and places where students can post photo examples of their class projects. With today’s technology, it is easy to snap a photo of your work, post it, and ask “what did I do wrong here?” or “any feedback?”. In my particular field of interest, quilting instructors have been around for decades, but until the availability of such courses many people had to travel to learn. The online learning platform takes accessability to a whole new level.

Recently, Miss Em enrolled in an online programming course offered by Youth Digital where students learn to program their own Minecraft Mod. This course follows the same idea as the Craftsy courses: video lessons, interaction with the teacher and other students, and includes weekly video podcasts by the host highlighting various students’ projects, etc. It is a truly interactive learning experience that the student can access 24 hours a day, whenever it suits them. The student can progress as quickly or slowly as they need. The lessons are geared toward youth, taught by a young instructor who is familiar with the current culture and language around Minecraft and programming in general. Miss Em found him funny and engaging and far more interesting than I found my Grade 11 computer science teacher to be.

My final example of online learning is the math program I’m using with Mr. Boo. Dreambox Learning presents mathematics in an interactive, video-based format that is heavy on visual representation (something I’ve always felt really enhances the presentation of mathematical relationships). Not only can students progress at their own pace through the lessons, but the program tracks the student’s progress and adjusts the experience to suit their particular needs. When proficiency is demonstrated in one area, the program moves the student through that module faster, and allows them to progress as far ahead as they are able. At the same time, if the student is struggling with other concepts, those are presented in a manner that is gradually broken down into more basic concepts until the program “meets” the student where they’re at, and then slowly brings the student through the material. This ability to completely personalize the experience for each student is one of the most impressive features of such programs and really trumps the experience in school. Ask any teacher how much they could accomplish if they had only one student assigned to them, and you don’t need to think too hard to appreciate what a difference a personalized education can make.

As a long-term homeschooler, my perspective on the current schooling system is already skewed. It strikes me as a giant, slow-moving machine, whose cogs spin with such momentum that enacting any degree of change takes inordinate amounts of time. In our home, when an educational approach isn’t working, we can try something else right away. However, when I ponder the implications of this with respect to the design of schools and what they are intended to achieve (preparing kids for adult employment and engagement with the world), it seems no mystery that the system used to educate our children is now woefully outdated.

I believe in children’s inherent drive and ability to learn, without being instructed in a “top-down” fashion (where student=passive listener and teacher=dispenser of information). However, with the availability of the Internet, and programs such as those I’ve described above, anybody who is comfortable seeking information for themselves can become “educated”. My children have only ever experienced the freedom of self-direction in their learning. They are not familiar with the concept of someone else dictating what they need to know, when they need to know it, and in what order it is all to be presented. But for children in school, this idea that learning is something that happens TO you, rather than something you MAKE happen, is still central to the pedagogy. And this is where I think they are being really shortchanged. Because in the present and future world, in the new economy, the status quo changes so rapidly that without creativity, thinking outside the box, and adaptability, one risks being left behind. Under such circumstances, waiting to be told what to learn, and how to learn it, is a significant disadvantage.

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I think these online courses and programs are truly the future of education. I imagine a world where children can choose their subjects, the order in which they are presented, the degree to which they immerse themselves in each, and follow a path that, like the strands of the world wide web, can be traversed by billions of people with never the same path being followed twice. My children’s learning is already intimately connected to the language of the new economy: technology, interconnectedness, and niche environments. They are immersed in that world, that culture, those tools – as are most children –  but unlike most children, my children’s learning is also intimately embedded in that world. In many schools (particularly the lower grades) children are still discouraged from using laptops, iPads, calculators, and other devices for “real learning” (those things are considered appropriate for extra-curricular activities). Parents struggle with “screen time” and popular culture treats it as something to be feared and fought against. We have assigned Value status to that which is taught in schools, and anything else is just a temptation leading us away from Success to a life of failure and sloth. I shake my head at this attitude, given what we know about the jobs of today and where they appear to be leading us in the future.

The bottom line is this: the structure of schools is based on a system that has long since gone extinct. We are short-changing our children by presenting them with only one path to learning and success: 12 years of mandatory schooling, another several years of expensive college education, and competing for jobs with the millions of others following the same path with the same results. Massive, bureaucratic, industrial machines such as the education system cannot keep up with the rapidly changing pace of today’s economy and job possibilities. It is my hope that, by allowing my kids the freedom to follow their own learning paths, they will not have to wait to take full advantage of the opportunities provided by the new economy. By the time their schooled peers are allowed to leave the early-19th-century world of en masse, one-size-fits-all, rote-memorization education to join the Real World, my kids will already be long-term residents.

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Categories: Homeschooling | 1 Comment

Homeschooling Update

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I was going over some old posts when I ran across this one from one year ago, about my shift from self-identifying as an unschooler, to taking a more structured approach to homeschooling. I was struck by how things have unfolded since that post back in September of last year.

I wrote about how my daughter, Miss Em, had seemed to withdraw socially from our homeschooling activities:

She now avoids crowds or groups of any kind which means she refuses to join any clubs, classes, or group activities even when the topic is one she is interested in or even passionate about. Despite having a wonderful homeschooling community around us she is a part of it in name only.

How far she has come! I almost don’t recognize this description anymore. We attend a weekly homeschooling group for tweens and teens, meant for socializing, creating, and learning together. I have seen her blossom in this environment, making efforts to interact, befriend, and participate with others. She has really come out of her shell this past year and I’m so proud of the person she is becoming. She has more friends and is engaged in more group activities than ever before, and I no longer worry about her future in that regard.

In terms of homeschooling style, I did introduce a bit more structure this year, but not to the extent that I had planned. The kids are both doing math twice weekly for about 30 minutes per session. And we are doing Project Based Homeschooling, with one session per week per child, which is very child-led and unschooling friendly while, at the same time, introducing the concepts of planning, goal-setting, checking in, and monitoring progress. It’s a great balance between structure and freedom. That, and all our activities outside the home, are keeping us Perfectly Busy (as in, not too busy that we are stressed, but busy enough that our days feel pleasantly full).

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I also wrote that we would be using a special tutor. That idea went out the window pretty quickly, and I have not regretted it.

Finally, I wrote this last year:

It has been very hard for me to accept that unschooling is no longer a good fit for our family, let alone the consideration that it may never have been in the first place…In a way it has felt like losing my religion. Like saying good-bye to beliefs that provided me with comfort and security but no longer fit my reality….The term “unschooling” doesn’t apply anymore.

I never did let go of the feeling that I am an unschooler at heart. I still largely self-identify as an unschooler and have not left my online community. I do use the term “eclectic” to describe our homeschooling, but it’s “mostly unschooling with a smattering of structure”. I really have to thank Project Based Homeschooling for the realization that imposing some structure didn’t have to be inconsistent with unschooling. And of course just watching my children closely, “observing for learning” as our homeschool program calls it, makes me realize just how much they are doing and learning and growing.

The truth is, I make the kids do math for many more reasons than concern that they are behind. They are both bright enough that catching up on the material isn’t difficult. For Mr. Boo, these sessions help him learn to focus – his attention span in this regard has doubled in the past year (he used to only be able to handle about 15 minutes, but now he is doing 30). For Miss Em, it’s about tackling something you feel anxious about and learning to love it again. I think of it as more related to autism therapy than academics.

All of this is to say that when I started this blog last September I had concerns and a plan to address them. Those concerns have been largely alleviated as I see the progress we have made this past year. And plans change, as plans do, as one goes along and constantly re-evaluates. That’s the lovely thing about homeschooling: if something isn’t working you can change it immediately. I’m very happy with how things are going and how the kids are doing. So, onward and upward!

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Categories: Homeschooling | 1 Comment

Project Based Homeschooling

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Over the summer I discovered the Camp Creek Blog and Project Based Homeschooling (PBH). After reading the blog for a bit I decided to purchase the eBook by Lori Pickert. Before I’d even finished reading it I knew this was something I really wanted to incorporate into our homeschooling.

By and large, my kids do what self-directed learners are supposed to do: they have interests, they ask questions (in the car, lying in bed at night snuggling, and sometimes when I’m totally distracted by other things), and they start lots of little projects. They have big ideas and lofty goals but they lack the skills to see them to completion. I used to wonder whether they were just “flaky”, and lost interest quickly, but reading this book made me realize that being able to come up with a manageable project, direct it, set goals along the way, monitor progress, evaluate and re-evaluate, etc., are skills that kids can learn, and how better to do so than by directing their own project with the help of a dedicated mentor.

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Pickert talks a lot about the value of mentoring. This is not only key to PBH, but it is also something that I have long been drawn to as the best way of educating kids. Or anybody for that matter. In PBH, the adult acts as a mentor, assisting the child and providing access to resources and materials, showing the child that their work is valued and valuable by devoting time and space to their projects, and by scheduling time for the child to return again and again to their work without being distracted by other things. But it is the child who directs the work and makes all the decisions about how to progress. They make mistakes, too, and that is all part of the learning process. The adult’s role is one of assistant, facilitator, a person off whom to bounce ideas, and to keep track of all the steps involved.

I have scheduled an hour each week to do Project Time with each child. I’ve sat down and discussed the concept with them and they are keen on the idea. I’ve got notebooks for each child in which I will jot down their goals, ideas, questions, and requests. I’ll translate these into posts on my homeschooling blog, which will be tagged for easy reference and which will be referred to in my weekly learning reports for our homeschooling program.

I’m very excited to see what project ideas the kids come up with!

Categories: Homeschooling | 1 Comment

Fun with Homeschooling

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As I wrote a while back, we have introduced some structured “sit-down” time into our homeschooling. I do what we call Project Time with each child separately. They do 15 minutes of an activity of my choosing and I give them 30 minutes of my time to do any activity they want. They can also earn extra time with me by spending extra time on my chosen activity. It’s not only going well (as in, the kids are not putting up a fight about it) but I’m having a good deal of fun, too.

We started with Dreambox Learning, an online math curriculum that is particularly appealing to visual learners like my kids. I sit and watch but I don’t offer them assistance in solving the problems. The program keeps track of their progress and struggles to adapt the program to them, so even mistakes are important. In some sections there is a “Too Hard” button the kids can choose if they are confused and the system will take them back to the previous steps. I love this program! I love how it tailors itself to each individual child, how it breaks math down into many different skills and allows students to progress in each skill at their own pace – if a kid excels at, say, place numbers, they can jump ahead to more complex problems while at the same time working extra on, say, negative numbers if need be.

Miss Em had some big gaps in her math learning so I started her off right at the beginning. That’s another good thing about Dreambox, you can set your child’s grade level to whatever you want. Because of the continuous feedback system, she has been able to take big leaps ahead on those topics she already grasped, while working in detail on those she didn’t. In this way she has completed almost two grade levels now, even though we haven’t spent as much time on it weekly as I would like. Mr. Boo is also progressing nicely.

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I really enjoy watching them play, because you can practically see the learning take place. I love it when they grasp a concept and you can see how they put it all together. Often it is in a very different way than I would approach a problem, which I find equally exciting. Now, to be honest, my kids really don’t like having to “do math”. The idea of being made to learn something they aren’t interested in learning is pretty new to them, and while they do it, they do so begrudgingly. Still, it is one of those things where, when you catch them unawares, you sometimes see a smile! They deny they are enjoying themselves, of course!

With the math program going well my next goal was to do some science work with Miss Em. She has loved science since I can remember, and I suppose it is no surprise given I am a scientist by training (I have a PhD and worked in medical research prior to having children) and her father is an engineer. I’ve been wanting to teach her about the scientific method, how to design and carry out experiments, how to ask the right questions, etc. as part of a general exploration of scientific subjects of interest to her (she loves the natural sciences, for example).

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After doing a bit of research I purchased a subscription to Explore Learning’s Gizmos. These are wonderful tools for exploring subjects in either Science or Math. Miss Em and I did a session together last week where she learned about genetic inheritance. Here is a link to the post that describes our breeding experiment with some cute space aliens! She really enjoyed herself, so much so that she said she is looking forward to doing it again. I had so much fun working with her that I’m looking forward to it as well!

I also got a subscription to the Young Scientists’ Club, which mails out a complete experiment kit to our home each month. Our first kit will be Minerals, where we’ll get to identify mineral samples using tests of hardness, acid reaction, etc. Miss Em really likes this area of geology so we are both excited about getting our kit and doing some real life experiments! The great thing about this systems is I don’t have to be responsible for planning the experiments, finding all the materials, etc. It all comes in one kit – awesome!

When the kids have finished doing their 15 minutes (or more, if they choose) they get to pick something to do with me. At first their choice of activities varied, but for the last month or so I’ve been playing Minecraft with them (if you have never heard of this game you simply must check it out – very creative and extremely popular among school-aged kids). While Mr. Boo tends to wander around trying different worlds and maps, Miss Em is more focussed. We use the same world each time where we’ve created a comfy home and are currently exploring a Stronghold filled with all kinds of neat minerals and ores. While I’ve been watching them play this game for well over a year and am familiar with it, playing it myself allows me to understand on a deeper level. Both kids seem to appreciate sharing this part of their world with me as they are big into Minecraft!

My only real problem is carving out enough time to do Project Time with each child more than two or three times a week. I’m not sure my son is ready for that yet, but my daughter certainly is. And he will be eventually. By mid-afternoon everybody is tired so it has to be done in the mornings. I’ve asked my husband to do a bout of project time with each kid when he’s home on the weekends, and he is keen to do so. It is my hope that, as the children get older and are able to focus for longer periods of time, we can extend Project Time and also start covering more subjects each week. Meanwhile I’m having a lot of fun being a homeschooling Mum.

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Homeschool…at Home!

Having tried in the past to do some focussed, sit-down homeschooling work with my kids each week and having failed miserably, I decided this year to get some professional help. The plan was to hire a tutor to get the Big Girl into the learning groove. I specifically chose a tutor with special education experience so that Big Girl’s particular challenges, both cognitive and behavioural, would not be an impediment. On the contrary, I hoped this tutor would figure out what kind of learning works best for her so I could translate that into our homelearning sessions. I also hoped this person would have more success introducing topics that Big Girl is naturally resistant towards (i.e. anything that isn’t related to biology or mythological creatures). The idea was that I would introduce homeschool sessions at home doing stuff the kids find fun and leave the more challenging stuff – particularly math – to the tutor. Then later when the tutor had figured out the best approach, I could learn this myself and apply it to our homeschool time.

We had our first session and I was a bit disappointed. The activities she brought seemed rather “schooly”, even though we’d had several conversations about the fact that my kids don’t react well to worksheets and other mundane task-oriented learning. To be fair, she doesn’t know the Big Girl yet, and I figured it would take a few sessions for the tutor to determine what would work best. However, it made it a harder sell to the Big Girl: she was already less-than-enthusiastic about participating in this tutoring thing and it was hard to prepare her for it given that I myself didn’t really know what it would end up looking like. So far, she has enjoyed the other therapists she’s working with and I think she was therefore optimistic about this one. But only a few minutes into the session it was apparent she was not only NOT having fun, she was getting rather upset by the whole thing. I realized that the tutor needed more information from me about how the Big Girl likes to learn and what sort of things she could try to get Big Girl interested and engaged.

That night as I lay in bed I thought about our Occupational Therapist. She has been working with the Little Dude for almost a year now and I have learned a lot from her. She started working with the Big Girl last month and so far the sessions have gone really well. The OT really knows her stuff: she knows how to get these kids engaged and having fun. She brings a variety of games and tries them out to see what the kids really enjoy. Later on she starts sandwiching other games, games that maybe the kids wouldn’t choose to play, in between games they like. All the games involve particular skills but the kids don’t really see that they are learning, say, fine motor skills or patience or compromise, etc. They also don’t see how applying this sandwiching technique teaches them exactly the kinds of skills they need to do homeschool work. It’s a great system and her skill in adapting each session – heck, each part of each session – to each child is really amazing to watch.

In thinking about this I realized it would be a great model for tutoring: learning games involving fun stuff the Big Girl enjoys, sandwiched in-between stuff like math games that she won’t enjoy as much (at least, not at first). I drafted an email in my head outlining a potential plan for the tutor. I listed some learning games I knew Big Girl would enjoy and suggested that the math games be just for brief periods at first (even as short as 10 minutes), working up to longer periods as the sessions progressed. When I woke up the next morning I was pretty psyched about what I’d come up with. And then suddenly it hit me: I could do this. I didn’t think I could because I’d failed at it before, but I’ve learned so much in the last year from Little Dude’s therapists that I understand now how to make it work.

As if fate heard me, I got an email the next day from the tutor saying it was taking too long for her to travel to my town (she hadn’t accounted for traffic apparently) and asking if we could change the location to a town halfway between mine and hers. A reasonable request, but one that would not work for me. It would take too much time out of my day to hang around while the Big Girl is in her session. And although the idea of a couple hours of peaceful reading in a coffee shop might sound like heaven, I’d have the Little Dude with me which changes the flavour of that scenario entirely! I realized that this was the perfect “out” for me, so I said “thanks but no thanks” and now we are flying solo again. I’m taking my plan and I’m going to use it myself.

So this weekend I searched the Internet for ideas for our homeschool sessions. I want to do some fun science experiments, and also get the kids started on a math curriculum. They are both behind in their math skills and I needed something that could accommodate their strengths and weaknesses, progress in a manner that would make sense for them, and be as fun as possible given that it is math and both of them have decided they “hate” math. I decided an interactive online program would work better for them than worksheets, and after checking out a few programs I signed up for DreamBox Learning. They have a free 14-day trial and then the fee is monthly, which is much better than forking out a huge amount of money for something that may end up not working down the road.

I’m really excited about starting this with the kids, and I’m hoping that if I sandwich it in-between fun activities of their choice I can establish a homeschool routine that can be tweaked and extended as we go along. Eventually I would like to lengthen the overall sessions, lengthen the time spent doing the things I want them to do, and broaden the range of subjects. But for now I’m happy to start with this math program, even if it means I’ll be stuck playing some obnoxious Mortal Kombat type game with the Little Dude as part of the deal. 🙂

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Good-bye Unschooling, Hello Eclectic Homeschooling

From the very beginning of our homeschooling journey I have identified as an unschooler. Since that term gets bandied about a lot on the Web, what I mean by that is I have completely trusted in my children’s innate drive to learn, to acquire the skills they need as they live and explore life, with myself playing a supporting role as facilitator and cheerleader.

For the first few years it worked as expected, but as my daughter has gotten older I have begun to notice gaps appearing in her learning. There are certain subjects in which she is significantly lacking in knowledge despite the fact that these are things she encounters as part of daily living. It’s not just that she doesn’t know these things, because that could be easily remedied. It’s that she actively resists learning about them, to the point of getting quite combative if anybody remotely suggests such knowledge or skills might be useful.

I have also noticed over the last couple of years that the variety in her life has diminished to the point where this past year she engaged in very few structured activities outside the home. Instead of the normal increased diversification one expects as children grow and mature, I have seen a significant narrowing of focus and limiting of experience that has caused concern on behalf of myself and my husband.

These issues can be explained by what I have learned about autism over the past eighteen months since I first realized that my kids might be “on the spectrum”, as they say. My daughter has very rigid ideas and points of view, with lots of black and white but virtually no shades of grey. Topics that, for whatever reason, she deems unimportant fall completely off her radar such that she not only fails to focus any attention on them, she will go so far as to actively and vociferously avoid learning anything about them. Such a way of thinking can be a real handicap if the child is allowed to entirely dictate the path of their learning.

Then there is her social anxiety which, like many “Aspies”, was not present during her younger years but developed as a result of years of failed attempts at socializing. She now avoids crowds or groups of any kind which means she refuses to join any clubs, classes, or group activities even when the topic is one she is interested in or even passionate about. Despite having a wonderful homeschooling community around us she is a part of it in name only.

How I got here is a common story among parents whose children have developmental disorders: waiting for her to grow out of it (or into it, as the case may be) and then waking up one day to realize she wasn’t doing either. Instead, things were getting worse. The gaps in her knowledge were growing and her social life was shrinking. It was time to take a critical look at my approach to homelearning.

It has been very hard for me to accept that unschooling is no longer a good fit for our family, let alone the consideration that it may never have been in the first place. But that is where I find myself now. I am not one to dwell on past mistakes and “what-ifs”; I prefer to take the lessons learned and move forward. I most definitely do not think any less of unschooling, and I know it to be a wonderful way to raise confident and motivated learners: I’ve known such children and have watched them grow and thrive over the years. But I think I can say now that when it comes to autistic children it is possibly not the best fit and I’m now convinced that it’s specifically true when it comes to my own children.

This has been a huge mental shift for me and it has taken some time to process it all. In a way it has felt like losing my religion. Like saying good-bye to beliefs that provided me with comfort and security but no longer fit my reality. Or voluntarily leaving a community, albeit largely a virtual one, of which I felt I was an established member and a respected voice. I have even felt as though I have been going through a sort of grieving period.

But after some heartfelt talks with my husband, establishing a new set of goals for homeschooling and approaches to meeting them, I now feel that I have emerged from this process. I am fully embracing the fact that we need to change the way we homeschool, and I’m even excited about it. That is part of why I decided to start a new blog, because it represents a rather significant shift in how I self-identify as a homeschooling parent. The term “unschooling” doesn’t apply anymore. I’m thinking that “eclectic homeschooling” will be a more appropriate description. And in case you are wondering why I feel the need to adopt any particular label it is because there are so many different ways to homeschool that it really helps to have some basic descriptors for the sake of discussion.

So what is eclectic homeschooling and, more to the point, what is that going to look like for our family? Probably the biggest change is that our children are no longer going to have complete autonomy over their learning. My husband and I (but still not the government) are going to decide what we think is important they learn and know. Some of it I will be in charge of presenting in the form of “project time”, which will combine sessions of my choosing with their chosen projects or activities in a regular, scheduled period of “sit-down” time. For other topics we will be enlisting the aid of a specialized tutor/SEA (Special Ed Assistant) who will be working not just on filling gaps in knowledge in a way that is fun and engaging for the kids, but also teaching them life skills along the way. The kids will still have choices, particularly when it comes to how they learn a given topic. But I am going to set and enforce the agenda. I cannot allow their disabilities to cheat them of experiencing life to the fullest. If Nature’s process has been thwarted, it’s up to me to set it right.

My daughter is going to have a harder time with this than my son, who has already learned over the last year of autism therapy that sometimes choices are far more limited than you would like them to be, and sometimes you have to do things even when you are not wildly passionate about it (with autism there are basically two settings: madly enthusiastic or vehemently oppossed!). He is still young enough that gaps in his learning are not apparent. But I intend to avoid having him end up where his sister is now.

There is definitely going to be an adjustment period for all of us, and I am going to need a lot of support to manage it effectively, but that is (in part) what their therapy teams are for. But I also know that once the new normal is established, it will become expected and uncontested, and that’s the part I’m looking forward to. Because, the fact is, I love learning with my kids and being a part of their learning and lately I have felt shut out from that process. So here’s to a new learning year, and an exciting new path for our family!

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