Archive | April 2015

Book Review: I Learn Better By Teaching Myself and Still Teaching Ourselves by Agnes Leistico

In 1990 Agnes Leistico published a book called I Learn Better By Teaching Myself. In 1996 she published a second book, Still Teaching Ourselves. In that second book she relates the following story from a Michigan mother who had ordered Agnes’s first book:

“After I opened the package, the book (I Learn Better By Teaching Myself) sat on the couch. When my 7 year old homeschooled son noticed it, he read the title and said, “Hey, Mom! You see this? This is what I am trying to tell you!”

I love that story.

Agnes Leistico homeschooled her three children in California in the 1980’s and 90’s. One by one she and her husband made the decision to pull each of their children out of school due to various problems, beginning with her oldest, Jim, who went to public school until the 6th grade, and then later bringing home their two younger daughters, Laurie and Susan. Eventually, each child chose to go back to public school in high school.

Agnes began her career life as a teacher, but she quickly found that the children she worked with resisted her efforts to make them learn what she was teaching them. She also worked in adult education and she found that, because adults were coming to her classes of their own choice, working with them was enjoyable. She quit teaching children but continued in adult education and the experiences she gained there greatly influenced how she eventually came to view her own children’s education. She came to realize that it was possible to allow children the same freedom to acquire knowledge as we allow adults.

Agnes embraced what she refers to as ‘interest initiated learning’ as her style of homeschooling her children. She defines interest initiated learning as “…that learning which the learner herself controls and initiates according to her own interests. Learning is guided by internal personal priorities, not imposed from the outside. The learner herself chooses when and how to learn about a given topic or skill. The teacher only enters into the learning process when invited to do so.”

Agnes wrote her first book because she had not heard of any books which addressed how parents can implement interest initiated learning. “I wrote I Learn Better By Teaching Myself because I saw the need for a book that encourages parents to follow their own instincts and to trust their children…. Still Teaching Ourselves reaffirms my strong belief that parents need to follow their personal parenting instincts and to trust their students to know what is best for them.”

Agnes’s writing alternates between very detailed descriptions of learning experiences with each of her children and more general, reflective thoughts about parenting and learning. I cannot possibly do justice to the combined 330 pages of her books. By the time I had finished re-reading them both for this review, I had 35 passages marked that I felt were so helpful, clear, intelligent and succinct that I wanted to quote each of them here.

There is so much wisdom in these books. I would like to devote my next post to sharing some of Agnes’s messages about education and learning, families and relationships, children and trust. If you would like to read her books yourself, they are out of print but can easily be found for a reasonable cost at online used booksellers or, if you live in Wisconsin, through WisCat.

Local Homeschooler Wins Latin Award

Way To Go Haydn!

Way To Go Haydn!

Congratulations to Haydn for earning Outstanding Achievement on the National Latin Exam.  Haydn took the Introduction to Latin Exam and received a purple ribbon for his efforts.  Haydn is 12 years old and lives near Washburn, WI.  He has been taking Latin classes from Classical Learning Resource Center since September 2014.  Haydn intends to continue his Latin studies until his mom can no longer afford to pay for classes. (Rumor has it she made him pay the test fee himself.)  When not studying Latin, Haydn enjoys reading, playing outside in the woods, studying maps, learning French, and watching Star Trek.  When he grows up he hopes to be “a dreamer”.


I Don’t Teach My Children (And Yet They Are Learning…)

Sometimes when we are out and about a community member will engage my children in conversation. A typical question is “What grade are you in?” to which my kids respond brightly “I’m homeschooled! But if I went to school, I’d probably be in … grade.” People will then sometimes look to me and ask about homeschooling. Often I am asked “What subjects are you teaching your children?” My answer is always something like “I don’t teach my children. They pretty much teach themselves.” I get looks of surprise, often followed by concerned glances at my kids.  To test their concern, these well-intentioned people might even ask my kids some random, specific questions, like “Do you know what year the Civil War ended?“ They’re trying to see if my kids are learning anything in my so-called homeschool.

(Isn’t it interesting – when adults ask kids questions, it’s because the adult knows the answer. When kids ask questions of adults, it’s because they want to learn about something.)

When I encounter exchanges like this, I let it go and don’t try to explain. After all, how do I tell someone, in the thirty seconds the average person will stay interested, how I homeschool and why? I don’t. I’m not good at elevator speeches.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the human brain cannot be taught. It can learn, but it must teach itself. Sure there are lots of ways to help it, we don’t function in a vacuum, but my kids are the ones that are figuring out all the information that is coming in through their various senses. I might be one source of that information, but it is still up to them to sift through it, make sense of it all, and put everything in its proper place in their memory or cognition or whatever it is called. (I’m a physical therapist, not a neuroscientist.) I do not ‘teach’ my children at home, but they are learning at home (and out in the woods, up in trees, in the chicken pen, at their friends’ houses and in the community).

I recently came across an article that mentioned ‘metacognition’. Isn’t that a fun word? Metacognition literally means cognition about cognition, or knowing about knowing, or learning about learning. In this post where I wrote about my daughter and I together coming up with ways other than workbooks to help her learn how to spell, a commenter wrote “What a great example of collaborative learning! To give our children the chance to learn how it is that they learn best and the power to shape their lives around what they discover is one of homeschooling’s great possibilities.”

“ …the chance to learn how it is that they learn best…” I like that statement – it seems like a fitting description of metacognition and how homeschooling can be a springboard for its development.

For the ‘great possibilities’ of homeschooling to blossom, children aren’t the only family members who have some learning to do. As homeschooling parents who went to school (that’s most of us) we have to unschool ourselves and unlearn our notions about education. Next, we need to open our minds to the possibility that there are other and better ways to learn besides the methods typically used in schools. ‘Learning’ should not be defined by what schools do.

In schools, most learning is about content. You know – read the text, listen to the chalk-and-talk, fill in the worksheets, write the summary, play some reinforcing games, take the test. Besides content, there is some skill learning. By that I mean learning something that can be generalized to different situations as needed, like penmanship, or research skills, or learning how to use a microscope. Often a subject that should be primarily about learning skills never rises above mere content. Learning math in school is a good example of this as evidenced by many children’s (and therefore adult’s) inability to apply basic math concepts to real life situations. Today’s schools are primarily designed to churn out skilled test-takers, but now I am getting off the subject….

I like mulling over these different facets of learning. Learning encompasses content, skills, and then this higher level of learning, metacognition — learning about our own learning and how we learn best. In schools, children are required to do what everyone else is doing and in the same manner (and at the same time). Students are not given any control over their own learning, and yet that is the only way they can learn about their own learning. The same could be said for homeschools that pattern themselves after public schools. Are our homeschools living up to their potential for ‘great possibilities’ if we simply bring the approaches, methods and mindsets of institutional schools into our homes?

My kids have very different learning styles. Perhaps that is why I think about all of this so much! For example, my son likes to use flashcards for help with memorization. Right now he is happily making his own flashcards to use to memorize his French vocabulary. My daughter, on the other hand, hates flashcards. Some time ago when she was wanting to work on her math facts I suggested flashcards to her. Her response was (and this is an exact quote), “Flashcards are useless. I don’t like to do them and, when I don’t like to do something, I don’t usually learn from it.” How’s that for Unmistakable Feedback??!! When I hear her say things like that, I like to think that she has a head start on this metacognition idea. I am happy to see my daughter is gaining self-awareness, and I am thankful that she is learning at home where she is free and safe to express herself. And I as her ‘teacher’ am willing and able to respond to her feedback.

I believe that in our home, our unschooled approach to homeschooling is allowing my children opportunities to assess and reflect on their own learning in ways that I never could in school. They are learning from and about their own learning, thus gaining insights that they can then cultivate and apply to learning in any setting. As they get older, their ‘learning about learning’ will become more sophisticated. My kids are not the only ones in my home engaging in this meta-cogitating – part of why I enjoy homeschooling so much is because it is giving me the chance to learn not only content and new skills, but it has helped me think about my own learning in ways I have not in the past. I apply these insights to my own interests (like my writing) and also to my efforts in supporting my children’s learning and development. There are many layers of learning going on in my home, for me and for my kids.  While some people think my children are learning despite my unschooling, what I see is that they are learning, and learning well and joyfully, because of our unschooling.

Record Keeping for Homeschoolers

I have been spending time recently sorting through my basement and, well, my life sure would be a lot less cluttered if I didn’t homeschool! (It would be even tidier if I didn’t have kids!) Seeing all my kids’ old drawings and such from when they were little made me think about how I used to stress about what to do with the chaos of all their materials and projects. I wanted to be organized and to save their things. I wanted to document all of their accomplishments and the interesting activities we did together, and I just didn’t know where to start.

I remember asking a couple of friends how they organized all their homeschool materials and all the projects and papers their kids churned out, but both of them purchased boxed curricula and so they just didn’t seem to have the same difficulties with chaos as I did. The advice from the lady who wrote The Well-Trained Mind is to take photos of your kids’ projects as a permanent record (and then quietly throw the project away when your kid is not looking…). In my basement, I have binders, (many, many binders) of work from my kids’ pre-school and early elementary years. They contain lots of drawings and early attempts at printing. I also have several plastic bins which contain larger art work and projects. These items are not particularly orderly but I seem to have a hard time letting go of them. While I have some photos of their work (especially if it occurred on a dry erase board), I still like to hold on to the real thing.

The law which regulates homeschooling in Wisconsin does not require record keeping beyond basic attendance records. Homeschoolers in Wisconsin are NOT required to keep a school calendar verifying hours of instruction, nor are they required to keep course outlines or any proof of curriculum. (Just to be thorough, I feel compelled to mention here that we ARE required to annually file form PI-1206 to report our intent to homeschool; this needs to be done online at the DPI website – I print and keep a copy of this form in my purse because it gets me the Educator’s Discount at Barnes and Noble stores and also I use it to get the unadvertised and little-known homeschooler’s discount at the Duluth Aquarium.) Any records we keep are for our own purposes. I know that from time to time I enjoy looking back at a record of past activities that my kids and I have participated in, and I sometimes find it encouraging to review documentation of our past studies so I can see how far we have come. Also, some of this might come in handy someday when my kids and I put together their portfolios for use in college applications and/or job applications.

As my kids have gotten older, some of their work has come to look like more typical academics, and I have managed to find a record-keeping system that seems to be working smoothly. I buy a new planner for each child in the fall. Now, keep in mind that I am not a pre-planning kind of gal and I am committed to our unschooled and spontaneous learning! What I use the planner for is actually to record what we do each day AFTER we have done it. In the daily part of the planner, I write down any studies accomplished, lessons attended, field trips and outings taken, that kind of thing. I write down activities like swimming and library trips, cooking and construction projects, play times with friends, and titles and authors of books that the kids have read or that we have read together. In the front of the planner I write down things of a more ongoing nature, like the name of a tutor and when we started working with her, what date music lessons began and ended, names of classes taken through our school cooperative, and titles of any textbook-type materials. That way I can just write daily notes that say, for example, Math: Chapter 5, Review, Set II and not have to write down Harold Jacobs Algebra Book over and over. That information is ongoing and is there, recorded in the front of the planner instead of in the daily notes.

I also keep a few binders. My daughter can write out her spelling words and then we can just date the paper and file it in her binder. On her planner for that day I can simply write “Spelling”. If we want to see the specifics, we can look in the binder and find the appropriate paper.

Some things don’t fit well into categories (or binders for that matter!!). For these things, I am fortunate to have an old dresser with two good-sized drawers, one for each child’s work. It is wonderful to just be able to have a place to ‘drop’ things. Newspaper clippings, photographs, handouts from plays or musical events we attend, etc. all go in there.

At the end of each year, I purchase a small-to-medium plastic bin for each child and on it I write his or her name and grade. I empty their binders (I like to reuse them to save money and space) into their bin, along with any items in their drawer and any completed workbooks. I put the lid on and, Voila! To the basement and onto the shelf it goes. The planners are kept separate and get lined up next to past years’ planners. I keep these in a place that is easy to access because they are great fun to look back at and have come in handy multiple times. It is much easier to look for information in a small, concise planner than it is to go through a bin containing a pile of papers.

The one other record-keeping activity I do is to write occasional progress notes for my kids (or have them write their own). I think I’ll save that topic for another post. But what about you? Do you keep records? If so, what methods have you found to help organize your homeschool records? Please share them here if you’d like!