Category Archives: education

I’m Reading a Book!

When I was pregnant with my first baby, I read tons and tons of books about childbirth, child rearing, child development. Like many young women, I knew I was ready when I was sick of all the expert advice and couldn’t stand to read any more.

Something similar happened with homeschooling. I read books and discussed curriculum and scoured the internet, and then — I didn’t. I just did it the way I wanted to do it, and the umpteenth time someone wanted to talk about math curriculum I would try very very hard not to slide under the table.

But there has been a buzz around a new book, so I did something I haven’t done in a long time: I got a new book about homeschooling.

It’s Project-Based Homeschooling by Lori Pickert, formerly of the Camp Creek Blog, and now blogging at Project-Based Homeschooling. I’ve read most of it but am looking forward to going through it a bit more slowly and also talking it over with friends.

My one disappointment with the book thus far is that it is mostly oriented towards younger children. She does speak about adapting ideas to older children and teens, however, and I will be spending some time thinking about how to do just that.

Regardless, I like the book for the same reason I assume people often like certain books: it says things I already think, but in much better ways, in more affirming ways — in this case in gentler ways — and it brings that vision of what I wish I were doing that much closer to reality.

Here are a few tidbits from the introduction that made me so happy I bought my first homeschooling book in years:

Surprisingly often, people will champion self-directed learning for children but not allow those children’s parents the same freedom and respect. . . . Your kids should learn at their own pace, follow their interests, and you should trust that they’ll eventually learn everything they need to know. You, on the other hand, should get with the program, right now, 100%, or else.

So true! How easy it is for any of us to slip from advocate to browbeating zealot. I loved this more solicitous approach, inviting you to give some of these ideas a try from a sense of generosity and helpfulness. So much easier to listen to than hearing that your children are in danger of failing academically or having their tender creative souls squashed like helpless bugs unless you shape up.

And then, this:

The freedom that we have to create a life that works for us, our children, and our families is priceless. We should never trade it in for a handful of magic beans — a purist approach that comes with a set of pregummed labels, a rule book an inch thick, and threat of eviction from the tribe if you deviate from the center of the path. As you explore new ideas — in this book and elsewhere — about how children learn and how we can help them learn, I hope you keep a firm grip on your own opinions and values. You can build a life customized to your beliefs and prioritizes. Don’t settle for off-the-rack.

So true again! It can be disillusioning that the most countercultural groups can demand the most conformity, and anything “alternative” is co-opted so quickly as a product sold back to you: everything you need for a brave new lifestyle, all in this convenient package.

I’ve written before that homeschooling our kids made us aware, as adults, of how wide-open our choices really are. That doesn’t mean radical change is always in order: one happy result of our sense of freedom was realizing that we love living right where we do. And if I’m being honest, sometimes I would choose the feeling of “doing it the right way” over waiting to see where an uncharted course takes us.

What I like about Project-Based Homeschooling is that it is more like a companion on the journey than a map. Lori Pickert writes in a way that accomplishes just what she’s advocating: she’s a resource, an encourager, a hands-off mentor, never forgetting that the project of being a homeschooling parent belongs to you.

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Filed under Books, education, Homeschooling, Unschoolish

A Few Eggnog-Soaked Thoughts on Wieseltier’s TNR Education Article

An article in The New Republic this week kept poking at me, so I decided to jot down a few thoughts about it despite it being the holidays and all, because I just want to enjoy my excessive eating, drinking, sleeping, game playing, and then guilt-ridden gym-going without this nagging at me.

Naturally I found this article through an angry homeschooling parent online, who didn’t like the stupid stereotype of homeschoolers:

The new interest in homeschooling—-the demented idea that children can be competently taught by people whose only qualifications for teaching them are love and a desire to keep them from the world—-constitutes another insult to the great profession of pedagogy.

And normally, you know, who cares? People think homeschoolers are ignorant creationist isolationists — whaddya gonna do? After seven years homeschooling this stuff is like mosquitos in a Minnesota summer — you can complain about it, but you can’t really do anything about it.

But in the course of the short editorial Leon Wieseltier said a few things that were way off base, and something that struck close to home as right.

First, because it’s fun for us homeschool veterans, another choice howler:

The only form of knowledge that can be adequately acquired without the help of a teacher, and without the humility of a student, is information, which is the lowest form of knowledge.

Should we have contest to see who can come up with 100 counterexamples the fastest?

But in decrying the anti-college, pro-entrepreneur, pro-make-your-first-million-on-an-app attitude of many home/unschoolers, Wieseltier, I had to concede, was describing a phenomenon that has bothered me too.

“Here in Silicon Valley, it’s almost a badge of honor [to have dropped out],” a boy genius who left Princeton and started Undrip (beats me) told The New York Times. After all, Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, and Dell dropped out—as if their lack of a college education was the cause of their creativity, and as if there will ever be a generation, or a nation, of Jobses, Gateses, Zuckerbergs, and Dells. Stephens’s book, and the larger Web-inebriated movement to abandon study for wealth, is another document of the unreality of Silicon Valley, of its snobbery (tell the aspiring kids in Oakland to give up on college!), of its confusion of itself with the universe. To be sure, all learning cannot be renounced in the search for success. Technological innovation demands scientific and engineering knowledge, even if it begins in intuition: the technical must follow the visionary. So the movement against college is not a campaign against all study. It is a campaign against allegedly useless study—the latest eruption of the utilitarian temper in the American view of life. And what study is allegedly useless? The study of the humanities, of course.

I see this in lots of ways, especially in the gifted homeschooling world. Parents (and I include myself in this group) will spend big money to get a good science co-op class for a kid because they “can’t do it at home,” yet they feel sure that their vague memories of reading “The Good Earth” in ninth grade are more than enough to do justice to the Western (let alone the non-Western) canon. One homeschooler told me to my face — to my face! — that she would discourage her children from following my educational path or entering my profession.

Much of this, I’m sure, is born of ignorance — you can’t miss what you never had, and many people running around with a Bachelor of Arts degree have never had a real liberal arts education.

But there is something more disturbing at play as well, which I think Wieseltier gets at:

The equation of virtue with wealth, of enlightenment with success, is no less repulsive in a t-shirt than in a suit.

You could argue that in saying this Wieseltier does not get the class privilege built into his own argument: seeking enlightenment through Homer and Shakespeare takes a backseat to breaking the cycle of poverty or just staying debt-free for many lower- and middle-income students.

At the same time, it’s sad to think that kids are stepping off the institutionalized education treadmill merely to get on the professionalization treadmill even sooner. I love books like Blake Boles’ “College Without High School” and Cal Newport’s “How to Be a High School Superstar,” but it’s easy to (I hope, misguidedly) take away the message that the secret to many of their case studies’ success is not being precocious learners but precocious income-earners. So yes, Wieseltier is talking about something real, and something it pays to be mindful of when thinking about homeschooling the high school years.

Nevertheless, what Wieseltier is missing is that homeschoolers and unschoolers could truly be his allies here. Classical and humanities-based education is being embraced by homeschoolers in droves: consider the popularity of “The Well-Trained Mind,” “A Thomas Jefferson Education,” or the work of Charlotte Mason, or so many other popular homeschool authors. He needs to read, or re-read, “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.” Homeschoolers *are* the “nonconsumers” whose innovations have the potential to improve education for everyone. Online classes like those from Online G3 are leading tech-obsessed kids who IM in class to fall in love with Shakespeare.

Humanist education in a variety of forms is alive and well on the educational frontiers. No doubt it has its enemies, too, but they aren’t the well-read ladies in the denim jumpers.

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Filed under education, gifted education, grown up life, Homeschooling, homeschooling high school

Closing Doors

[in mid-November DH and I sent the kids to the grandparents and went on a short European tour of Zurich, Vienna, and the Czech Republic. I took way too many pictures of doors.]

Even the most relaxed homeschooling parents usually still have some bottom line subjects they insist on, or a level of competence they expect no matter what.

Often we talk about this in terms of keeping doors open. A kid who says “but when will I ever really use algebra?” is likely to grow up and a) want to go to college and quite possibly b) go into a field in which solid math skills are necessary.

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[These were in the back of the Spilberk Castle in Brno. I especially liked the hinges.]

Sounds reasonable so far.

But then the questions come: How long do you hold the doors open for your kids before you let them close? How many doors can you keep open at once? For parents of kids with multiple interests and multiple talents, stretching far enough to keep all the doors open starts to feel like spinning too many plates. So which doors do you keep open?

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[The door on the left is from the Einsiedeln Abbey in Switzerland; the door on the right is from the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Brno.]

Math is a big one for most families. “Math is cumulative,” people say. Slack off for a bit and that lost time will come back to bite you later. For some “English” is big: spelling, grammar, vocabulary building.

As we move further along the relaxed spectrum, and as my 13yo reaches high school transcript age, this is a big question for me: Am I keeping the doors open? What doors am I closing?

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[More castle doors in Brno. There must have been quite an artisan in the area at some point in the castle’s long history.]

So far I’ve figured out two things:

1. At a certain point, it’s no longer my job to keep the door open. That feeling that I am stretching too far probably means that I am stretching too far. I’ve shown the kid the door, I’ve made my best argument for why we should leave it open, but I just can’t make someone walk through. Anyway, most doors that have closed can be opened again by a motivated young adult.

2. There are more doors than you think. I have to say, I have never heard anyone argue, “I insist on my child continuing music lessons because I want to keep the door to a musical career open.” No parent has ever told me, “I told my child to spend lots of time role playing, because I want to keep the door open for a career as a novelist, playwright, or actor.” Aren’t drawing skills cumulative too?

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[I want this for my garage.]

I suppose it’s easy to argue that if a kid is “really passionate” or if it’s “meant to be” she will find a way. One could argue that math is a door you have to keep pushing open for them; art is a door they will run through at every opportunity.

But hogwash, to put it mildly. A kid who’s keeping every door open doesn’t have that many opportunities. She’s too busy scraping herself like butter over too much bread. And some kids know very clearly that some doors lead to parental (or social) admiration and support, while others are for lesser minds and also-rans. In other words, there is a point at which insisting that some doors stay open means that others close.

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[The Grossmünster in Zurich; Spillberk in Brno. The Grossmünster door at least is relatively recent: no doubt Zwingli and Bollinger would not have approved.]

Careers in the arts are incredibly competitive — that’s what makes them so scary to parents who want their children to grow up and support themselves. All the time that goes into building a robust Plan B, however, is time that is not going into developing a craft. And whether either or both of our kids have careers in the arts, they’ll likely find that having some fluency in a creative medium makes life a lot better.

I can’t say that I feel totally confident about moving in a more unschooly direction: blog posts like this are about convincing myself, not necessarily sharing my brilliant insights with the world. But I can’t say that I felt totally confident about the path we seemed in danger of starting down: relegating genuine talents and passions to the back burner in order to be sure our homeschooling met some made-up definition of “college prep” — to say nothing of what happens to our relationships and quality of life along the way.

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[Doors to one of the many art museums in Vienna, nearly three stories high; a yarn-bombed door on an office building in Brno.]

I am curious, though, whether we’ll eventually find out that “keeping the door open” has been an insufficient metaphor all along.

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Filed under art, education, Homeschooling, homeschooling high school

Homeschool Dropouts

It’s not been all lapbooks and readalouds in the old home-schoolhouse these last few months. Well, really, it’s never been lapbooks, because although the pictures I’ve seen look cool I’ve never quite understood what they are or why you do them.

In any case, the road to homeschooling high school has been bumpy, and we need to get out of some bad habits now. As of tomorrow, Violet, the 13yo, is cutting back her formal learning activities (classes or curriculum) to just a few: chemistry, an online current events class, and a literature class at co-op. I guess officially we should also count Shakespeare Youth Theater and maybe piano in the “formal” realm. And that’s it for a while.

Victoria, the 9yo, also has the option to cut back, but for now she is really happy with the progress she has been making in math and French and she wants to keep with what we’ve been doing. And history is reading, and who doesn’t love reading?

It should be noted that Violet has big plans for writing, and for reading more and more about linguistics, and doing lots of art, and opening an etsy shop for selling art, and getting her Chinese writing and reading caught up with her conversation skills. I’m forgetting a bunch of other stuff she has written in a notebook. Tomorrow she’ll be catching up on chemistry after a vacation with Mimi and Papa while her dad and I were abroad and after a leisurely Thanksgiving weekend. She’s decided to extend her upcoming current events presentation to include something called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. She already had some kind of mind-reading story lined up, so now she’ll have a broader theme of “Ethics of Brain Science,” or something like that. Or that’s the plan for now.

Also, she’d like to do more baking.

It makes me a little nervous, nudging our family further along the “relaxed” spectrum of relaxed homeschoolers. I have many good qualities, I like to think, but “relaxed” is not one of them. But it also makes me nervous to wonder what the consequences of the insane schedule and the frequent arguments over things neither of us really care about might be.

Violet baked two pies this week, and I think the consequences of that were excellent.

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Rethinking Talent Development

I did mean to write about my 9yo’s schedule, but all I really have to say is that I can’t wait til she can have the routine she craves. It’s been lacking since mid-August, as she’s been sick with whooping cough (and this past week a cold on top of it). Ever heard whooping cough called the 100-Day Cough? Well, there’s a reason for it.

Anyway.

If you aren’t part of the GT education community, you might wonder why a totally benign, focus-grouped phrase like “talent development” has come to be a flashpoint.

My friend Stacia, who has been an advocate for gifted children for many years, put her finger on one part of the “talent development” movement that has always irked me. Talent development tends to mean STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) development, but not all students who have talents to develop want to develop in that direction.

Our society has also begun to send a second message,”Artists and philosophers are not as important to society as scientists and mathematicians.” I beg to differ. There is balance in all things. The great minds of science and mathematics were often also philosophers and artists. We can’t separate out talents like we are separating the wheat from the chaff because art and philosophy are not chaff. They are wheat just like science and mathematics.

It’s not hard to observe this in any circle: the “geniuses” are the ones who go far and fast in math and science. Sometimes I wonder if this is just because so many adults have mediocre math and science educations that they are impressed by what seems impossible to understand — and sometimes I wonder if it’s because they’ve had even worse educations in language and the arts, to the extent that they don’t even know the difference between adequate and excellent.

Anyway.

As homeschoolers we try to have a balance: keeping open as many doors as we can by having a broad-based education, not completely ignoring the necessity of earning a living, and making note of every person we know who earns a living being creative or finds a way to maintain creative pursuits in a busy life. What I’ve observed so far is that telling the wheat from the chaff is a lot harder than you’d think.

And on the other hand, sometimes we watch way too many episodes of My Little Pony while we wait for good health to return.

Truly, Friendship is Magic

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A Misleading Guide to This Year’s Resources, Part One

It’s mid-September, and I’d like to do what some other homeschool bloggers have done and post my kids’ rough schedules. I’d like to, but that could be hard. I haven’t even ordered the books for all of them yet. I figure summer isn’t officially over for a few more days yet anyway, so how behind am I really?

How can anyone concentrate on ordering books when there are hummingbirds everywhere just begging to be photographed?

Still, in the interest of sharing information, here’s what my 13yo is doing as of now:

AP American Government via Thinkwell
DD13 is really enjoying this. She took a great American Government class with Online G3 this year and enjoyed it so much that I thought she might as well continue with the subject. The Thinkwell class has some review, but it’s enough material for a whole year – and supposedly the AP exam – so I believe she’ll still get a lot of new stuff out of it. So far, she likes the format and the lecturers, and I think she’s getting some good note-taking practice. Besides, this is a great year to be studying American Government. Speaking of which . . .

Current Events via Online G3
I admit that this class was initially an afterthought. I wanted DD to keep in contact with Headmistress Guinevere and her longtime G3 classmates, but this was the only class that fit our needs at all. Wow, has it been great! I love turning on NPR and having her say “Yeah! We talked about that in class!” and then share more about what she knows. I’m so happy that she is part of the class.

Geometry via Life of Fred
DD did took a chemistry class and a physics class last year, so at some point we completely abandoned math as a formal subject. There was plenty of applied math—and brain overload—happening as it was. We also skipped ahead to trigonometry for a while so she’d be ready for vectors in physics. So there’s some geometry still to do before moving on to what we had actually planned for this year, which is:

Precalculus via Thinkwell
We’ve really liked Life of Fred. DD seems to have a math talent without having a strong math interested, and this has suited her well. But I think we need to move beyond the totally self-taught approach at this point. Once geometry is done she’ll start this up.

Dystopian Literature via co-op
This is a co-op class I proposed to the retired teacher who’s taught several literature classes for our group. It’s kind of a “What to read after The Hunger Games and City of Ember,” including 1984, Brave New World, Animal Farm, and Gulliver’s Travels, among other things.

Japanese via VHSG
This is DD’s first time take a class through this group. So far so good! Community college was just not in the budget this fall, but this still allows some exposure.

Chinese via Chinese Pod
DD has been working through Chinese Pod for some time. While it doesn’t really force her to develop her reading skills as much as she’ll need to eventually, she has a great ear and is pretty fluent in conversation with her teacher, so I’m satisfied with the time and money spent here.

Chemistry via SSE
This is a 2-year chemistry class billed as Honors Chemistry. Several of the students will be studying for AP Chemistry, DD among them, though she may do the SAT Chem test instead/also. I can’t say enough about the great instructor for this class. He does not know how to worry and takes each student as he (or she, but really almost entirely he) comes. He does offer online classes, but we’re lucky to have access to the in-person version.

Fire Good!

Still to come:

Korean via Rosetta Stone
DD was doing this over the summer but has dropped it over the last few weeks to start Japanese. She would like to pick it up again, but we’ll see.

Linguistics via MITOpenCourse
I really need to get the darn book so she can start this!

Writing via Mom
It could be that I am putting this off.

Oil Painting via art teacher
I have been talking to one of Violet’s former art teachers for almost 6 months about getting this on the calendar. Ugh! But since one of her co-op classes was cancelled at least I have the money set aside to get her started. I will do it — I will!

Of course typing it out like this makes it all look so formal and organized. Don’t be fooled! No, we will never be mistaken for radical unschoolers, but we do aim for as much self-direction and freedom as possible.

It’s just that the self-direction and freedom can’t be typed up as neatly as the official-sounding resources we use. There is no official “tumblr creation” time or songwriting time or obsessive drawing time, and yet these take up at least as much of the day. Not to mention bike-riding time and skyping time and novel-writing time and lying-on-the-sofa-reading time. Oh, and piano. Always lots of piano.

Staring-at-stream time is also very important.

Typing it all out may also make it seem like we are more test-oriented than I think we are. We are, to some extent, following the advice of Blake Boles, who suggests in College Without High School that a few College Board-y test scores will make it easier to have an unconventional adolescence and still go to college, if that’s the desire. I’ve also seen plenty PG kids at this point who reach mid-teens and say, “forget it, I’m ready for college NOW.” That’s not the road we’re on today, but it’s happened enough that I think we’ll just take a few precautions. Besides, this particular child doesn’t mind taking tests. When the other daughter reaches this age, I feel pretty sure a different path will be laid out before us.

Speaking of which, I’ll lay out the 9yo’s current resources in an upcoming post.

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Not-Back-to-School, Year 7; or, 7 Things We’re Getting Right

After five years of homeschooling, on my old homeschooling blog Red Sea School, I had to admit that I had made mistakes. You know those mistakes that veteran homeschoolers tell you about but you brush them off because, whatever, you’ll figure it out? Yeah, we made them. We made them good.

I made a list, one for newbies to ignore and wizened old experts to laugh at. (Of course laughing openly means you have to own being wizened and old, so laugh at your own peril.) It’s actually a pretty good list — check it out.

I meant to get around to listing 5 good things too, but life happened. As we kick off a seventh year of not going back to school in the fall, though, it seems like a good time to list 7 things I think we’ve done OK with, in no particular order.

1. Staying Close
When we started homeschooling, people who asked why we did it were in for an earful. Luckily someone in our first year modeled for us the brilliantly simple answer, “Because we like it.” And we do. We like being together, especially if being together means bumping into each other between reading books, listening to music, taking an online class, or playing at the park.

I realize now that in another five years Violet will likely be off to college — maybe even sooner. Before that she could be spending a year abroad. Yes, time with your babies is precious. Time with teens may make you question your decision to ever become a parent, but it is equally amazing and irreplaceable. Yes, you can spend time with teens without homeschooling, but doing it this way is still pretty damn cool.

2. Staying Loose
You just don’t know how the day is going to go until you get there. You don’t know if the math curriculum you bought is going to be terrible, or the schedule unworkable, or the book irresistible. I do like making a plan, but I like it because I feel it frees me up. When I see all the little blocks of activity that need to be accomplished, all mapped out, its so much easier for me to move them around in my head or even delete them when needed.

Just this morning I got up early to shepherd the girls through a more structured day of “doing school stuff.” When I came down the stairs ready to start, an eerie sound greeted me, and we spent the next half hour doing this instead:

3. Staying Young
Not me, sadly. But my kids. When my homeschooled niece, now a PhD student, was about the age of Victoria, I remember thinking that she was oddly mature and immature at the same time. Except by immature what I really meant was unsophisticated, in a good way.

As Violet begins the teen years, it makes me happy to see that she’s as good at making up pretend games and playing them as she ever was. Of course sometimes she is too cool for school, and of course she rolls her eyes at my pathetic ignorance about popular culture now and then. But by and large she finds most of pop culture “gross,” she is genuinely puzzled by the clothes sold to her age group, and she has little interest in a “boyfriend,” something kids start in 4th-5th grade around here.

No doubt this puts us in danger of wearing the socially stunted homeschooler label, but as I look at young adults like my niece and nephew, now grown up, witty, and surrounded with friends, I don’t worry.

4.Sticking Our Necks Out
Just making the choice to homeschool sometimes feels like you’ve started waving a big red flag at the Running of the Bulls. Suddenly, everyone has an opinion, and it’s hard to know just how much to share about your own views without alienating people you care about, let alone nosy strangers. Too often people think your enthusiasm for what you’re learning or doing is somehow an implicit critique. We started homeschooling after realizing that our older daughter would need to skip several grades to make traditional school palatable, or even tolerable, for her and that was something she didn’t want to do.

We needed the support of others in the same situation, but there was no way of finding those people if we stayed in our comfort zone. We don’t have to answer nearly as many questions these days, and I’ve learned when to stick to my knitting, but I’ve also tried not to be too shy about our interest homeschooling specifically as an option for profoundly gifted kids. It’s helped me meet a lot of great people and find very cool opportunities, and it’s given me the satisfaction of helping other parents and kids many times over.

5. Sticking With It
“Yes, we’re still homeschooling” is the e-mail user name of someone on a local homeschool list. There are days when I hear that question — “Still homeschooling?” — like someone else might hear, “still married?” Why wouldn’t we be? And there are days when I want to set my children on the curb for the next passing yellow bus. Sticking with it is hard. But it’s the only way to get it done. And though I have blown it and threatened the end of homeschooling a time or two, by and large I think our six-year-and-still-going commitment has made the girls feel more confident about being homeschoolers, too.

6. Playing Hooky
We are really, really good at this. I am a master of “just 15 more minutes” when there’s a juicy conversation happening at the park, assuming “master” means able to stretch 15 minutes into another 60. I love a good play at the Children’s Theatre, or a week’s vacation in the early fall, or a midday concert, or a stay-in-your-pajamas-and-make-cookies day. Homeschooling can be intense, in the way that everything in our house can be intense. Some days you need to show that schedule, and yourself, who’s really in charge.

7. Taking It One Day at a Time
Much as we love homeschooling, we never say never. There’s an arts high school in our area for just 11th and 12th grade — could that be an option for Violet? My girls are so different from each other, and from who they were last year, and last week. Beyond that, education is so different from what it was last year: who knew everyone would be talking Coursera and Udacity just 12 months ago? Where was Khan Academy when we started? We deal with what works now and trust that we can handle tomorrow when it comes.

One day at a time also means that when one day goes bad, homeschooling isn’t a failure. I admit, I could do better. But so far bad days — really, usually a bad couple of hours at most — haven’t scared us totally off. Days will try to run together, but starting fresh when the sun comes up is pretty much a requirement. Today is when we officially celebrated our “first day” of homeschool for the year, which means trying to get up a little earlier and getting some stuff done before meeting friends for an ice cream social/not-back-to-school party. But really, it’s just another day of learning and hanging out with friends — just stickier.

I also found that blogging was thing we did right in the early days, and as I said the other day, I’m hoping it will be a help again. So what surprising serendipity to see the first homeschool high school blog carnival today. It was especially fun to see some familiar names on the roster, from the years when I was so much more active in the homeschool blogging world. I’m hoping for some more good conversations to launch on the next six (or more or fewer) years.

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