Archive | March 2015

On: Unmistakable Feedback (And Some Thoughts on Spelling, Too)

Last spring my daughter finished her spelling book, closed it, and turned to me and announced “Just so you know, mom, I didn’t learn anything by doing this book.”

It was a turning point for me. I finally started to listen to my children.

I went from being a thoughtful, flexible, eclectic homeschooler to being an unschooler. I am finally really listening to my kids and letting them make their own choices when it comes to learning.

You see, when you homeschool, your children will give you unmistakable feedback. But as homeschooling parents, most of us think we know what is best. Sure, we listen to our kids and try to be flexible, but we’ve been around the block a few times and we know what our kids need to learn and how best to learn it. Right? And of course, the experts that write and publish curricula know even more, don’t they? Oh dear, does that sound a bit like school?

My son and I are the same when it comes to spelling – we learned to spell through simply reading. My daughter, however, does not learn in the same way. So as her homeschooling mom, I read about different ways to help children learn to spell. Then I looked over a wide variety of materials and selected what I felt was best for her. After all, how can a second or third-grader make those kinds of decisions for herself?

But had I ever even asked my daughter if she CARED about her spelling? Had I asked her what would help her learn to spell? No, I had not. So sometime after she closed her spelling book that day, I asked. The conversation went something like this:

“How do you feel about your spelling?”
“I want to learn to spell better, mom.”
“Why do you want to improve your spelling?”
“When I email my friends, I can look at my words and I know some of them are not spelled correctly.”
“What do you think would help you learn to spell?”
And, of course, the answer was “I don’t know.”

So we discussed different strategies. We talked about finding different spelling books. “No, mom, spelling books don’t help me.” In Washburn schools, the first grade teachers are already giving their students lists of spelling words to memorize, and the kids are tested on the words every Friday. Did she want to memorize word lists? Did she want to be quizzed? “NO MOM!!!” (I just have to say, when my friends tell me stories like that about schools, I am SO grateful that my kids are homeschooled. My daughter would CRUMBLE under such pressure.)

I had to ask myself, what is most important here? And the answer was ‘relevance’. If something is relevant to our lives, we are interested in it and we learn easily. So my daughter and I decided, together, on a strategy for learning spelling. Several days per week we pick three spelling words. I try to come up with words that are relevant to something currently happening in her life. I ask her how she feels about the words. She’ll let me know if she can already spell them, or if they sound too hard. Once we settle on three words, she goes to work composing a sentence or two that contain the words. Then she figures out how to spell any difficult words. She can look them up in the dictionary or try to write them and see if they look correct. She likes to write on some large, smooth stones that she has (using a harder rock to ‘scratch’ out letters). Sometimes she will use our old alphabet blocks to spell. She can ask me or her brother for help if she gets stuck. Once she decides she is comfortable with the words, she will use a sheet of lined paper to write her sentences out on. It just so happens that in this way she is also learning composition, and she is getting a chance to work a bit on her penmanship.

Here are some examples. The first day we did this, I gave my daughter some words that I had seen her misspell, ‘pizza’, ‘cookies’, and ‘apple juice’. She went to work at her desk and after a time I asked her how she was doing. “Terrible!” was her response. I felt awful. “What’s wrong?” I asked her. She responded, “I can’t figure out how to spell ‘restaurant’!”

Cute, huh? I love how she will challenge herself beyond anything I give her. Here is one more fun example. One day last fall a red squirrel was in our tall pine tree and he kept dropping huge pinecones down while my kids played underneath, dodging the pinecones. It was great fun! The next day my daughter and I picked ‘squirrel’, ‘bruise’, and ‘pinecone’ for her spelling words. The sentence she came up with was, “The squirrel got a bad bruise when the pinecone fell on top of him.” This is what I mean by relevant.

My daughter loves these opportunities to be creative while at the same time learning. Many of her sentences are about her brother; some get quite silly. We do other things to help her learn to spell. She continues to read prolifically from a wide variety of sources including very challenging ones, and I know that seeing words over and over is helpful. Occasionally I will suggest that she do some ‘copywork’, copying down a sentence or paragraph from a story she has read and enjoyed. One day when she was doing this, the book that she was copying from kept closing and so she would memorize a few words, let the book close, write the words from memory, then open the book again. At first I was going to offer her something to help hold the book open, but then I realized that the way she was doing it herself was probably a far better way to learn spelling!

My daughter enjoys these activities, and guess what? Her spelling has improved. After three years of doing spelling books and seeing no improvement, her spelling has improved by leaps and bounds in the six or seven months since I started listening to her.

If you need ideas about spelling, I hope you find some useful ones in my writing. But I want to reiterate my initial reason for writing this: your children will give you unmistakable feedback. As a homeschooling family, you are in the best position possible to actually listen. And together, you learn.



Honoring Our Children’s Choices

We were at Penokee Mountain Cooperative School last week and a fellow homeschooling parent kindly shared with me that she had found some of my writing in a previous post to be helpful. In that post, I wrote that my relationship with my children is the foundation of my homeschooling, and that there might be circumstances in which I would consider public school for my children if I thought that it would be helpful for some reason. As parents, in our decision to homeschool, we need to consider what is best for the whole family (that includes the parents). Something in those statements had struck a chord with this particular mom. Her kids have decided that they want to try going to public school, and she and her husband have decided to let them try it this spring. Although the mom feels some misgivings at the thought of potentially no longer homeschooling, it is something her kids are curious about and she feels that she needs to honor their interest and wish to try it out for a bit.

I would like to share with you the story I was thinking about when I wrote about considering the needs of the whole family. I used to work as a pediatric physical therapist, which means not only working with children but also working with their parents and even getting to know siblings. It can be very intense work. When I was first working (oh dear – 25 years ago!) I cut an article out of a magazine because its message ‘struck a chord’ with me. It was written by the mother of a child who had severe mental and physical handicaps. I lost the article years ago, but I still remember the boy’s name: Michael. At a time when people with disabilities were being de-institutionalized, this woman and her husband chose to have their son live in an institution. Why? Because Michael’s needs were enormous. He COULD live at home, the parents COULD care for him, but his care overwhelmed the whole family and took much-needed parental time away from his siblings. She struggled with the decision, and she struggled with criticism from other people, but the way she explained it was something like this: Maybe home was the best place for Michael, but when he was home, home wasn’t the best place for anyone else. That comment really made an impression on me. We are so quick to judge other people’s decisions. How could anyone place their son in an institution? Why wouldn’t they do everything they could to raise him at home? But this wise woman knew that she needed to consider the needs of everyone in the family, not just one person’s. She also wrote that she dreamed of seeing her son out running and playing ball with her other kids, yet at the same time she knew that if he could do that, he wouldn’t be the same boy. “Michael wouldn’t be Michael if he was not disabled.” Wow. I have used that idea often to help get through a difficult time, especially when my kids were younger. When my daughter was up for hours at night screaming – I mean exercising her lungs – I would sometimes think, “My daughter wouldn’t be who she is if she was not so tenacious”. Sometimes we have to cope however we can!

The homeschooling mom that I talked with also shared with me that it is hard for her to let go of homeschooling; being a homeschooling mom is a big part of her identity. I think all of us as homeschoolers can understand that. Even when my family was involved with a charter school (one that is similar to a virtual school), I felt like I was a homeschooler. That was hard for me to let go of, to admit that my children were enrolled in public school*. Homeschooling is such a strong part of my identity. But I like what this mom also said to me: “Going to school for the next two months IS my children’s homeschooling.” Yes. Because they are making decisions as a family for the family. Because she and her husband are giving their children choices, and really listening to what they are saying.


(*In order to maintain our homeschooling freedoms, it is imperative that we as homeschoolers maintain a clear distinction between homeschooling and public-school-sponsored virtual schooling which takes place at home.  More info here.)

Local Homeschooler Wins Art Award

Congratulations to local homeschool student Aaron who won “Youth Best of Show” today at the 39th Annual BMO Harris Bank Art Exhibition in Ashland. Aaron is from Washburn and he is 13 years old.  He displayed two outstanding watercolor paintings at the exhibit: “Great Blue Heron” and “Gaillardia Flower”.

Way to go Aaron!

Below is a copy of Aaron’s bio as written by his family and displayed with his artwork at Karlyn’s Gallery in Washburn. Aaron sells his artwork and greeting cards there. Stop by sometime and take a look!

Aaron started playing with paints and brushes at the age of 6. Doug Thomas, Steve Nesheim and Mark Nutt were among his art teachers until the age of 10. He went into different mediums from Pen and Ink, Watercolor, Charcoal, Pastel and Print Making.

In the summer of 2013 Karlyn Holman invited him to attend some of her workshops. Wow! We asked nervously as parents, “Is he ready for Karlyn’s level? He just turned 12 years old.” Students attending her classes are adults and most of them are already recognized artists. Aaron was brave and painted with other artists. He attended a total of four workshops in 2013 and continued attending each year. With Karlyn’s influence and amazing approach to teaching, Watercolor is now Aaron’s one best friend. In the winter through spring he attends Wei Lan Lorber’s watercolor classes. Aaron is just one lucky lad to have two great art teachers all year ‘round here at Karlyn’s Gallery.

Aaron loves the Lord, homeschooling, 4-H and fishing! He shot his first deer at the age of 10. He likes to cook and is a great helper on the farm during summer. He donated most of his first artwork to a church that we helped build in the Philippines in December 2013.


How Do You Homeschool? Or, What Do I Do With My Six-Year-Old?

This is the question I have been asked the most: What did you do when you first started homeschooling? Did you buy a curriculum? (No, I find them unnecessary and too limiting for my family although others may find them useful) How did you teach them to read? (We mostly just read together although I taught my son short vowel sounds to help him learn) Did you print worksheets off of the Internet? (I think I printed off some dot-to-dot puzzles and mazes a few times)

So what DID I do? I would like to spend some time trying to give a fairly complete answer, and I apologize in advance if this post seems a bit long. I don’t know how to say all of this quickly. First I want to share with you that I was heavily influenced by The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer. And while overall I implemented very little of what the authors suggest (their suggestions are purchased-curriculum and seat-work heavy to say the least), I took away one key idea which guided our homeschool through the elementary years: I loved their perspective on history.

The way I learned history in school was piecemeal and disorganized, taught in no particular order. None of it interested me or stuck with me. In schools they assume that young kids won’t be interested in things that are remote from them. So they start with units about ‘my community’ and Wisconsin/state history and American history, and move about from there with bits and pieces presented as unrelated fragments and facts to memorize. Good grief, does this make sense? And why would anyone assume that children would be bored by or disinterested in ancient Egypt or Greece? These cultures are fascinating, you just need to approach them without boring textbooks, worksheets and multiple choice tests.

History CAN be learned in a way that makes sense. History is not a subject, it’s a story. It’s OUR story. With a beginning and an end. History is far from just a separate subject and certainly is not dull unless you make it dull. In my homeschool, while learning about history itself, we also used history as the ‘spine’ of our other learning in the elementary years.

My kids and I spent 5 years (several hours each week) working our way chronologically through the timeline of history. We did not have or use textbooks for this study but instead relied primarily on our library card. We do own some good reference books (world atlas / geography encyclopedia), and I did purchase Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World books and activity books, which I found to be immensely useful, but you could learn without them, too. The Story of the World books are nice to read aloud to kids and the activity books are full of additional activity suggestions and lists of relevant and interesting corresponding books to look for at your library.

We checked out a bazillion books and read and read; the kids read independently or I read aloud to them. Picture books, historical fiction, factual books, books of myths and fables (our absolute favorites). And when I say that I used history as the spine of my homeschooling, what I mean is that as we went through the timeline of history, we learned about other things from that era. What were the scientific and technological discoveries of the time? What progress was being made in mathematics? (We would work out some of these math problems ourselves – what a great way to show kids that math is interesting, useful, and very much part of our story!) What literature was being written? (I would read some of this ‘primary source’ literature aloud to the kids at the appropriate time. ) Who were the composers of the time? What did the art look like? When we were learning about ancient Greece, we visited a planetarium and learned the Greek alphabet and some Greek words. This lead to my family’s continuing love of learning word origins. When we reached the late 1500’s, we read picture book versions of Shakespeare and then went to a Shakespeare play. My kids were 8 and 10 and sadly they were the only kids in the audience. If you start simple, Shakespeare is not intimidating. We spent extra time on the things we liked best. We immersed ourselves in history and literature, mostly in our own living room and mostly for free.

Even though my kids are two years apart, we did this together. My son loved it, often asking me to verbally quiz him on our reading, happily writing summaries of what we’d read (spelling, penmanship, composition), and spending time coloring maps from the activity book (geography). To this day, my son loves maps and will spend hours poring over them and drawing his own. But I also want to tell you that when I tried to incorporate those activities into my daughter’s learning as she got to be old enough, she was very resistant. “I don’t care about all those wars and kings, Mom.” I tried several times over the years before finally seeing that her interests and her way of learning are different from her brother’s. While she loves it when I read history aloud to her, and will read just about anything on her own, she also needs to feel more connected to her learning. So I let go of the summary writing and quizzes and focused more on activities that she found meaningful, like visiting living museums such as Old World Wisconsin, dipping candles and making pioneer-era toys, and always finding historical houses to tour when we travel.

Learning history in this chronological fashion has allowed my kids to see and make connections. It is not the dates and names that I learned in school that count. Instead, what is important is to gain an understanding of what came before and after, to learn how people with their cultures moved and influenced one another, to have a grasp of the relationships between historical events. As kids get older, this kind of learning can lead all kinds of directions and may spur an interest in anything from cartography to language study to reading and studying the classics. But I want to emphasize that we did this because it was enjoyable, because it worked for us. This isn’t a prescription; it’s not a method or endorsement of some curriculum. I am answering a question by showing what worked for our family and how. The way we approached history made it accessible and memorable. It gave us a starting place, helped us organize our thoughts, and brought us closer as we learned together as a family.