Category Archives: gifted 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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Brussels Sprouts Surprise; or, Not the End of Homeschooling

My 15yo (16 in two weeks!) passes through the kitchen while I am trimming Brussels sprouts—chopping off browning ends, halving them to roast.

“What are we having for dinner?” she asks, grabbing a glass for water, the better to wash down all that Easter chocolate.

“Kung Pao Brussels sprouts,” I say. “Oooh,” she responds. We’ve had them before, and everyone liked them, even though I couldn’t find the peanuts I had Just Bought for the recipe. (I saw them several days later at the bottom of a crisper drawer. Huh?) Everyone also agreed: add tofu next time. So I am.

As I keep slicing, I recall that when I was 15 I would have said “Ooooh” very differently – more of an “Ew!” – when offered Brussels sprouts. Though my kids annoy me sometimes when they get “full” of vegetables and then pile on the bagels and candy, I can’t deny that they are much more flexible, adventurous eaters than I was as a kid. I would not have been suggesting that we eat Brussels sprouts again soon, but next time with tofu. When I was 15 I would never have foreseen cooking Kung Pao Brussels sprouts with tofu for my own pleasure, let alone for the pleasure of children related to me.

In the last 15 (16!) years a lot of unexpected things have happened, after this weekend I’m ruminating on two of the big ones. I attended the Easter vigil last Saturday, the first one since my own baptism in 2002 (the vigil is not a child-friendly event IMHO). For all kinds of reasons, I’m still surprised to wake up and find myself Catholic, which was not a destination I had ever considered until I wound up there.

As for the other thing: On Good Friday, we went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for a family outing, to see the incredible Habsburg exhibit currently visiting. I was in Vienna just over two years ago, touring the museum from which most of the exhibition’s pieces were taken, and to connect with that again was to wonder anew at the opportunities have fallen totally unmerited into my lap.

But that’s not the other thing. We came home from the museum, my 11yo begging me to take her to Vienna ASAP, and gathered the mail. There we found my 15yo’s acceptance letter to our state arts high school: a two-year program designed to let artistically driven, academically strong students develop their skills in an arts area they are truly passionate about. I was thinking of it as a good test drive for a full-on 4-year arts school.

This was not unexpected. Admission is little competitive: about 60% get in, which seemed safe. Still, it was confirmation that she’d be enrolling full-time in a brick and mortar school in the fall, marking the end of an era that—possibly more than being a Catholic Christian—remains one of my most unlikely detours.

Obviously, that’s homeschooling. The 11yo is already attending a very loosey goosey brick and mortar charter school, and the 15yo is taking half her classes at a community college, so I’ve had a year to ease into the not-a-homeschooling-parent lifestyle. I won’t lie to you: the quiet is nice. And so very very sorely missed.

Homeschooling: the first month

Homeschooling: the first month

Still, homeschooling has so far been the most wild and wonderful adventure I could have taken while staying on the sofa in my pajamas. As I reach the end of this phase, there are so many things I could (and probably will!) say about the transformations and lessons of the past decade, but right now I am just drinking in the last days of this time of life. Sitting with my daughter today watching a video about famous Renaissance thinkers and artists—while the Brussels sprouts roasted in the oven—I could not have been happier. When the lecturer mentioned Petrarch – “pause it!” – Leonardo DaVinci – “pause it!” – or Savonarola – “pause it!” – I was so excited to take the conversation further with her. And she indulges me, because I get pretty passionate myself sometimes, and we all deserve a chance to indulge our passions.

So my time as a homeschooling parent is coming to an end—at least, that’s the plan. But my time as a homeschooler is not. I have a few helps-for-homeschoolers I hope I’ll finally have time to type up and make available: homemade curricula, dos and don’ts, admonitions and encouragements.

Homeschooling -- the end times?

Homeschooling — the end times?

Truly, that Brussels-sprouts-shunning 15-year-old me would be astonished by all of this: the vegetables, the church, the kids, the travel, the homeschooling. The Internet, for Pete’s sake.

And speaking of the Internet: I’m also going to start teaching at Online G3, which was about the biggest homeschooling help we ever found. Jaime Smith introduced me to the idea that homeschoolers are disruptive consumers, and over my years learning about education I believe that is true. Families taking part in innovative or experimental types of education are a small, grassroots market now, but the ideas and tools they generate will have the potential to improve education for everyone. I’m excited to be a part of that, and to find out what surprising turns we all might take in the next 15 years.

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

I Hold the Mermaid’s Hand

I posted this three years ago on the Red Sea homeschool blog, and it is still true about my birthday girl. It’s also as sappy as ever, so if you hate that, look away. I’m not posting for you anyway — I’m posting it for my little mermaid

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No one believes that this girl can be any trouble. (Pictured here in a photo composed by her sister — I can’t remember the legend being enacted.) She goes off into the world and skips and sings and says wise-sounding things to adults. She is rarely found in the center of a knot of kids in trouble, but kids seem to like her all the same.

Then she comes home. Sometimes with wise-sounding words, but often with furious yells or tears, she tells me she doesn’t belong. No place quite fits right, sometimes even home. Some days something sets her off, some days she rolls out of bed already off kilter.

We went through something a bit similar with Violet at a similar age — “I’m tired of being the only one” she said about why she deliberately faked errors in her schoolwork, before homeschooling.

But with Victoria it runs deeper somehow, and the feelings are so much bigger and more intense. It’s not a school thing, it’s just a being thing, and in some ways it’s always been a part of who she is. There is only so much I can do. I can try to match the right phrase to the right time: “Different is wonderful,” “Different is no big deal,” “Everyone feels different,” “I feel different sometimes, too,” and “Different is hard.” Most of the time I have no idea what to do: she is different, and that is hard for her and for me.

Mostly all I can do is be there. Being there with a dreamer is complicated: you don’t know where she is, and half the time neither does she.

Which is why, God help me, this video clip just hit me right where I am living. It is cheesy, schmaltzy, hokey and — Lords of Irony forgive me — so true right now. So although I am slightly embarrassed, I have to share it for anyone else who has one of these dreamy little girls.

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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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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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Filed under education, gifted education, homeschooling high school, Unschoolish

New Year’s Learning Notes

And we are back to school, whatever that means right now. (Longer post required)

For Victoria, who is 9, she likes the reliability of subjects that we do regularly. Math, history, and French. But she also likes to make, and do, and sing. I am in love with the Klutz paper dresses kit she got for Christmas — she cracked that thing open and started making the most adorable little outfits you ever saw. After the first one was a little crooked, she had the concept down and there was no stopping her.

Totes Adorbs

Totes Adorbs

It’s so funny, because she also recently started participating in a little engineering club (BEST — Bridging Engineers Science and Teaching — ps can we agree no word-person was consulted in the formation of that acronym?) and she is so intimidated. How can a child who figured out, after about 2 minutes of advice from a Sewing Idiot (i.e., me), how to draw and cut out her own sewing patterns on paper by measuring a doll form and calculating seam allowances, cut out the fabric pieces, and sew them together feel intimidated by a few wheels and a battery-operated motor? And for that matter, why is attaching a motor to some wheels “engineering” while navigating the complexities of constructed clothing is “crafty girl stuff”? (Longer post required)

will sell for 2 dollars (observe the giant Tardis that has come to Hogwarts)

will sell for 2 dollars (observe the giant Tardis that has come to Hogwarts)

Violet, 13, is just drawing and drawing, lots of sketches for a webcomic she is plotting. She has memos on her phone and text files on the computer–the planning, I think, is the best part. Apart from the drawing.

Drawn on the computer/tablet

Drawn on the computer/tablet


She continues to study Chinese and linguistics in a pretty-much self-guided way. She’s staying with her chemistry course and keeps saying she wants take AP Physics next year. (Apparently physics will be “easy” because studying chemistry is so incredibly painful and physics is fun.)

And — knock me over with a feather — she said to me yesterday, “I think I need to start doing some math. I feel lazy not doing any math.” She has not formally “done math” in quite a while. Last year she was taking both physics and chemistry, and that seemed like enough math for any 12yo who doesn’t really love math. This year she was perfunctorily working through some geometry but we abandoned that — the level of perfunct seemed to guarantee that next to nothing was going to be retained anyway. One thing we are learning is that there is a degree of presence required, not only from her, but from me, to make things happen. Oddly, trying to be more unschooly seems to require more presence — of a certain sort — from me rather than less. (Longer post required)

We haven’t yet figured out what “doing math” will be. She wants to review before starting the Thinkwell Precalculus we bought, and maybe in the end we’ll put that aside for something else anyway. In any case the next two months, for her, will be all about Julius Caesar, her first performance in a Shakespeare play, unless you count the staging of parts of Midsummer Night’s Dream we did during her 9th birthday party. And all about drawing.

Experimenting with the new markers

Experimenting with the new markers

Throw in some fencing for Victoria and piano for both girls and lots of reading and trying to get some outdoor time in the winter and we are full-on back to something is that not quite vacation, even if it isn’t really school.

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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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