Category Archives: education

Summer Project: A Little Something for the “Humanities Kid”

Summer starts tomorrow, sort of, which means I am getting serious about prepping for those fall classes I mentioned way back in my last post. I’m so excited to re-read my Richardson and Fielding for my Online G3 History of the English Novel course.

I spent a good chunk of time yesterday reviewing definitions of the novel: Bahktin, Hegel, Leavis, Lukács. I’m sorry, but it’s true — sitting down with all those names again was like digging into a pile of Christmas presents. And now I have a notebook full of quotations and questions marks and “expand on this” to play with.

Lilacs and Lukács -- the signs of summer

Lilacs and Lukács — the signs of summer

At times like this, I’m torn between two feelings. First, obviously, I’m giddy. If there are just eight teens out there who want to talk about why the novel, why the (long) 18th century, why England, why do we like Emma even though she is so obnoxious – I am more than ready.

But there’s also a feeling that looks a little like regret. If this is how an afternoon of class prep makes me feel, why did I leave academia in the first place? Imagine if I had done another round of interviews, pushed harder to publish that second paper on Charles II, been less geographically choosy, and so on. It all seemed so logical in my post-first-baby haze, when I was making more money freelancing part-time at home than I could dream of as a full-time assistant professor. But if I had played the long game, maybe . . . A worse-than-pointless rabbit hole of thought.

To steer out of it, I consider that the university doesn’t have sole ownership of these kinds of conversations, and if it feels that way maybe it’s because I’m not looking hard enough. (More on that some other time, and no disrespect to the university, long live its role in the maintenance of a humanistic culture.)

And if it feels that way, maybe it’s because the bridge between the university and the rest of the world has gotten a little rickety and neglected, at least when it comes to the humanities. You won’t catch me heading off on a STEM vs. liberal arts rant, but as I’ve talked with parents over the last decade about advanced humanities education for gifted students, I’ve seen that most have zero clue what that does, could, or should look like. “Astrophysics” sounds smart, but “reading” sounds like something you should have mastered a long time ago.

One consequence is that while we march our accelerated math-and-science students though a very clear, well-defined scope and sequence, those so-called “humanities kids” (some of whom are also great at math but want to spend more time elsewhere) flounder a little. And while I am all for some floundering — how much great work has come from the observations stored up while floundering? — I’m also for the chance to try your wings a little.

For those kids, I hope that’s what our advanced teen classes at G3 can offer. And for me, I hope that planning for these kids and playing around with my old toys will lead to some new ideas about where we can take humanities education from here. If anyone out there is wondering the same things, get in touch!

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Who Are You Comparing Yourself To?

The polar vortex is striking again, and schools have been closed for two more days.

When talking to friends who have kids in school, it’s clear that, even for those who enjoyed a couple of extra days of holiday break, enough is enough.

Danny, don’t tell me they cancelled school again

I had to confess to some of them, eventually, that I was feeling some relief in hearing stories of screwed-up finals, AP classes falling behind, and a general anxiety about when all this missed stuff would get done. By comparison, our own challenges in getting back to a routine this month seem pretty tame, and it is certainly easier for us homeschoolers to make up “lost” time in the summer than it is for a whole school of teachers, staff and students. By comparison, we are doing OK.

Recently, I’ve also had several friends with kids in school talk about the struggle to get teachers to accommodate individual students’ needs—but not too much. Without giving away details—and without pretending to know what the right answer is—I was struck by the way teachers and parents use (and fail to use) not only IEPs and 504 plans, but also individual, informal exceptions to deadlines, time limits, even the amount of homework due. Some parents have been frustrated with a teacher’s unwillingness to follow the official, agreed-upon accommodations, but others have wondered aloud whether a teacher had gone too far in making an exception for their child, rather than providing an opportunity to learn from problems or mistakes.

I promise, I mostly listen to these stories with the intent of being a sounding board and source of support. But part of me, when I hear a similar tale repeated across several families, thinks, “so you have to deal with this in school too?”

As a homeschooler who has drifted among various levels of formal learning and child-led-ness over the years, I’ve never held an especially principled stand on the right amount of accommodation to allow a kid whose hormones, deficient attention, lack of interest, superabundance of interest, or something more serious causes them to deviate from a path we had previously agreed upon. It’s not hard to come across people who will tell you “I’d never make my kid . . .” or “I’d never let my kid get away with . . .” Probably it makes more sense to move back and forth between requiring compliance and letting things slide, even if that means getting it “wrong” sometimes.

But the fantasy that I could put my kids on the big yellow bus and make that someone else’s problem has appealed to me at certain times. More than one tempestuous afternoon has included a parent (possibly me) hissing behind closed doors to another parent (who kindly listens as though I weren’t a broken record) that these girls just need to go to school and learn to be responsible and accountable to someone, to meet deadlines and be punctual, to do their math sitting up in daytime clothes and stop Skyping between paragraphs.

What my friends’ stories about IEPs and unmonitored iPads are telling me is that school is not a magical place where kids snap to it, and no one there has quite figured out the best way to keep them off Tumblr during study times either. Yet again, by comparison, we’re doing fine—maybe not better, but no worse.

All of which led me to think: exactly who am I comparing us to, anyway? Where did I get this expectation of what “enough” should be?

When I started homeschooling, I had to work my way past comparing myself to all these wonderful Internet denizens. Maybe some of these will look familiar to you:

The unschooling family with their quirky, silly, pajamas-all-day photos on Facebook
The competitive family with kids excelling in several organized activities
The holy family and their never-ending supply of activities pegged to the liturgical calendar
The prodigious family, whose kids have started charities and small businesses before turning 12
The I-couldn’t-care-less family who can’t stop talking about how much they don’t know what their kids are doing

I’ve learned something from all of them, but none of them have cracked that secret code for “rightness.” (Trust me – I’ve met most of them in real life.)

The tricky bit is that it looks like I might have replaced them with an even more unattainable, ever-moving standard that is Totally. Made. Up.

So while I’m sorry for my friends who have struggled with closed schools and computer access, I have to thank them and the polar vortex for cluing me in. Choose your yardsticks carefully, use them sparingly, and crack them over your knee when they no longer serve you.

Now get inside and make some cocoa. You look cold.

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Filed under education, Homeschooling, homeschooling high school, Unschoolish

Welcome to the Foxhole

This New York magazine article by Jennifer Senior was making the rounds on Facebook this week.

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If you can’t bring yourself to read all seven pages, which you should, just know that there is interesting stuff about how stressful the teen years can be for parents. Like, how our perception of the difficulties of our children’s adolescence may have more–a lot more–to do with our own stress than it does with whatever they’re going through. And apparently–surprise!–it’s worse for mothers, and really worse for mothers of daughters. I guess mothers and teen daughters fight a lot.

It’s good food for thought for any parent of teens, though especially trenchant for those of us homeschooling high school. Everything seems to matter so much now: this allegedly radical life choice we’ve made, doubted, defended, and doggedly (deludedly?) stuck with is about to stand trial. Did we really ruin our kids’ chance of getting into college? Did we ruin them, period?

I know lots of parents ask themselves these questions, but there’s an extra sense that you’re facing a moment of truth when you’ve made a non-mainstream choice, whatever it might be. That kind of pressure makes it hard to take that necessary step back and let go. (And if you don’t face that kind of self-doubt as a parent, please, keep it to yourself. Or no, maybe bottle it somehow and make millions.)

When my kids were little, I had a particular piece of parenting wisdom I liked to share with stressed out newbies. I got to use it again last weekend when a friend pointed me to a mom who was new to our local gifted group and who needed a sympathetic ear. It didn’t take long for our conversation to cover the “and then the teacher said . . .” and “who ever thought I’d be telling him not to . . .” and “people think I’m pushing but really I’m just trying to keep up” and all the other touchstones.

It would get boring hearing people recount them, they are so familiar, but then you look over and see that a mom or dad you just met has eyes shining with tears and hands reaching for yours while they say “You get it!”

After that moment of connection, I hate to disappoint, but I think I invariably do. I used to share information about this curriculum, that school, this psychologist, that support group, but my heart isn’t in it anymore. Much of the time that stuff, just like 1-2-3 Magic, and time outs, and chore charts, is busywork for parents. Yet it is necessary busywork for many of us. Which is why my best parenting advice has boiled down to this:

Do whatever feels right to you, because, generally speaking, child-rearing methods and philosophies are things that keep parents busy and preoccupied while kids figure things out on their own.

It was true for potty training, it’s been true for homeschooling, and it sure seems to be the key to keeping it together during the teen years. Find a way of parenting you feel good about, for yourself, and let that carry you along and keep you out of the kid’s way. Just like the sugar pill that cures your headache after a few hours of rest, miraculously, much of the time your brilliant parenting will bear fruit right about the time your kid grows out of whatever she’s going through.

Quoting researcher Laurence Steinberg, the New York mag article put it somewhat more pointedly:

“[A]dolescence is especially rough on parents who don’t have an outside interest, whether it’s a job they love or a hobby, to absorb their attention. It’s as if the child, by leaving center stage, redirects the spotlight onto the parent’s own life, exposing what’s fulfilling about it and what is not.”

Ouch! But yes, that too.

My friend (and brilliant advocate for gifted kids and parents) Stacia Taylor said it even more succinctly–and more convivially–when my oldest turned 13 and I was fearing the teen years:

“Welcome to the foxhole. We have wine and chocolate.”

As we navigate my oldest’s last few years of homeschooling–and anticipate my youngest’s arrival as an adolescent–that’s where you’ll find me. Whatever imaginary moments of truth lay out there can pass unnoticed. I’ll keep my head ducked, dodging bullets, keeping busy, covering my eyes when it gets too scary, passing out the libations, in good company. With any luck, whether or not we emerge victorious, we may come out to find young people who were worth not fighting for.

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Filed under education, gifted education, Homeschooling, homeschooling high school, raising girls

More Mapping Books, Plus Cookies

And we’re back. To schoolishness. I like to bring things back into a little order in the fall, though every fall it seems like we are a little too far gone to really achieve anything like order.Besides, when September hit there was a barrage of need-tos: new glasses, yearly check-ups, chimney repair, gov’t homeschool paperwork, allergy doctors, etc. Regular schedule? Ha!

In any case, the geography activities from Mapping the World With Art seem to be a hit so far. Violet — now 14! — is really happy that we are doing something all together again, the readings are interesting, the map-drawing instructions are clear, and Victoria (10) is happy with activities that include baking faux clay tablet maps that are really chocolate cookies.

Untitled

Funny thing about the cookies: initially we all thought they tasted kinda blah, but by 9:30 pm they became pretty tasty. I do not think it was the cookies that changed.

Oh, and we usually watch a John Green Crash Course along with the lesson. Violet loves them because John Green is an Internet hero, and Victoria enjoys them, not least because they are probably age-inappropriate for her. Oh well. They race along at breakneck speed, so I’m not sure what they’ll remember other than John Green, but with any luck it reinforces things they already knew.

I’ve also been piling up books to strew around the house to add to our geography reading. Mapping the World really hits on a lot of fascinating topics but the readings are — happily — short. I got these to allow for following up on anything interesting:

Charting the World: Geography and Maps from Cave Paintings to GPS with 21 Activities. Richard Panchyk.

This is a book from Chicago Review Press, which I find to be a fairly reliable source for worthwhile materials. Not all of the activities are going to be worthwhile for every audience, but often the text is strong enough that kids in a variety of ages and interest levels can take something away.

The Kingfisher Atlas of Exploration and Empires. Simon Adams

What you would expect from Kingfisher visually. It’s really focused on the Renaissance era of New World exploration.

The Picture History of Great Explorers. Gillian Clements.

Honestly, not a great book, and a little young. What it’s lacking in text and great illustrations is somewhat counterbalanced by the very broad definition of explorers. If you are looking for women who were explorers, you can find them in here.

The World Made New: Why the Age of Exploration Happened and How it Changed the World. Marc Aronson.

Amazon lists this as ages 10 and up, but as with many good books written for children, as an introduction to the topic it works for older readers and adults too. Nicely done, though focused on the American history angle.

The Starry Messenger: A Book Depicting the Life of a Famous Scientist, Mathematician, Astronomer, Philosopher, Physicist, Galileo Galilei. Peter Sís.

OK, this is not really about mapping, per say, but you know, people navigate by the stars. I am not familiar with Peter Sís (though a quick scan on Amazon suggests that we should look for more), but I just could not resist a beautiful picture book suitable for older children. (They are out there, but it takes a discerning reader, librarian, or bookseller to help you find them.) It is not a biography of Galileo, in the tradition of the wonderful Diane Stanley books, but it is a gorgeous visual representation of the way the world looked to Europeans during the Renaissance. This is really an all-ages book.

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Reading Lists

This is it! High School! When It Counts!

No, I don’t expect big changes in how we do things around here. I am hoping for a few changes in how I do things, however. Namely, documenting what’s going on in a way someone else might understand.

I really want to write a post, with photos, about the amazing and full-to-bursting August we just had (Family, Friends, County Fair, State Fair, Michigan, Chicago) but I’m going to kick off my record keeping instead.

Here are a few reading lists we have created already for this fall for the 9th grader, to be tweaked, pruned, and increased — ideally with a little additional help from friends. Steal if you like, and add if you can!

CLASSIC MANGA from the 1980s
Phoenix (1967-88)
Lone Wolf and Cub (1970-)
Swan (1976-81)
Akira (1980-)
Vampire Hunter D (1983-)
Dragon Ball (1984-)
Robotech (1984-)
Appleseed (1985-)
Oh My Goddess! (1988-)
Ranma ½ (1987-)
Ghost in the Shell (1989-)
CLAMP (1989- )
Sailor Moon (1991-)
Tatsumi Yoshihiro

CLASSIC SCIENCE FICTION
H. G. Wells (The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine)
Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
Robert Heinlein (The Rolling Stones, Stranger in a Strange Land)
Ursula K Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness, A Wizard of Earthsea)
Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash)
Isaac Asmiov (I Robot, Foundation)
Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451, Martian Chronicles)
Frank Herbert (Dune)
Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle)
William Gibson (Neuromancer)
Alfred Bester (The Stars My Destination)

MAPPING/CARTOGRAPHY
These are meant to accompany Mapping the World with Art this year. I doubt we will get to them all, or read the entirety of each book.
Maphead, Ken Jennings
Longitude, Dava Sobel
How to Lie with Maps, Mark Monmonier
Ptolemy’s Geography
On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, Simon Garfield
The World Through Maps, John Short
Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, Peter Turchi
You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, Katherine Harmon
A Little History of the World, Ernst Gombrich
Crash Course/World History, John Green (Web series)

CLASSIC NOVELS BY WOMEN
This one is still very under construction — a good project for the next week will be discussion what this classification could possibly mean.

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Summer School

Not a week goes by without someone asking about online support for homeschooling high school — where are all the conversations we used to have back when the kids were younger?

I suspect they are happening in our own minds as we drive to endless rounds of activities — even my relatively antisocial teen seems to spend a surprising amount of time socializing, yet she still can’t drive.

We took a lot of time off of various studies during the fall and winter, and then the spring was so snowy and gray it took all of our energy to stay alive and not go Hunger Games on each other, so a little bit of summer study here and there is in order.

Violet has started precalculus, so that when theater and other things get too hectic she feels free to take some time off. She’s using Thinkwell — our first time using Thinkwell for math — and generally finds Ed Berger entertaining.

I have been sitting with her and knitting for most of the lectures and problem-solving — and I admit every once in a while I get too excited and say “but couldn’t you do it like this?” and grab a pencil and solve part of a problem myself. Let’s call that modeling enthusiasm and collaborative effort, shall we? Anyway, after last fall didn’t go so well I realized that it’s important not to mix up independence and isolation. So I sit in a comfy chair near the laptop and knit and check in periodically, and the whole process of catching up with math feels much warmer. Also, I really like watching her solve problems — as much as she doesn’t like math, she is pretty fluent with it, and I imagine even artistic unschoolish 14yos need an experience of feeling competent, logical, and rational at least once a day.

She’s also working on Chinese and drawing drawing drawing, and I keep trying to slip her new books so she isn’t *always* reading something she read three years ago.

Victoria, now 10, blew my mind last week when she told me she would be worried about going back to school because she thought she was “slow” and didn’t know as much as other kids. Lori Pickert touched on this aspect of homeschooling in a recent blog post, as if she had been reading V’s mind.

I really didn’t know how to respond to this. I don’t like to make a big deal out of test scores with the kids, but — girl, have you seen your test scores?!?! In any case we are keeping up with Singapore math and some history reading. We ditched the Sonlight history readings about the world wars — the light really seemed to go out of her eyes as we read day after day about trenches and fronts and artillery. I know some kids really dig that, but it was turning her off after many years of loving our history reading time, so I set the Usborne World Wars book aside.

We’re trying to get in the habit of compacting all this into two hours or less, so we have lots of time to enjoy the sunshine. Luckily (?). there hasn’t been a lot of sunshine so we’ve been able to approach that goal gradually. Then again, if there were more sunshine maybe I could get the kids to get up and dressed before noon.

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Still Here!

Despite a long silence, all is well and busy here. We’ve gotten through a busy play production, some unusual work for me, and a vacation in Florida. Bring on the spring.

I’ve also been spending a lot of spare time prepping to teach a literature class for teens at our homeschool co-op. This sounds like a small thing, and probably should be a small thing. As it turns out, however, there was a reason I got a PhD in English. Cracking open the Pope and Swift after a long absence was like reconnecting the power to an abandoned amusement park in my brain — flashing lights! clanging bells! circus music! And that’s just the class prep part.

I write about literature of all sorts almost every day for my freelance work. It’s almost always interesting, but it doesn’t allow for getting up close and personal with a work the way even preparing for teaching does.

I’ve set up a tumblr for the class, but really it is kind of a buffer zone where I can put some of the overflow of my excitement — Oh my gosh! Look at these illustrations! I love this couplet! — without totally overwhelming the students.

(Was that an oblique confession that poking around tumblr looking for lit/ed bloggers has been distracting me too?)

I’m updating a few times a week, so check it out. And oh my gosh! Look at this illustration!

"The Cave of Spleen" by Aubrey Beardsley, based on Alexander Pope's "Rape of the Lock."

“The Cave of Spleen” by Aubrey Beardsley, based on Alexander Pope’s “Rape of the Lock.”

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