Category Archives: homeschooling high school

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

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

The Real Real World

I was a smart girl–a good student–when I was young, so many people told me I should grow up to be a doctor.

Healing is a noble and essential vocation, but it was not mine. I always loved words, and possibly more than words I loved ideas and feelings that seemed to elude words, to dance just outside the margins of what paper and pen could hold. Inside that little gap–just wide enough that you can almost reach across–there lies a sensation of stretching, yearning, glimpsing the unseeable that never fails to thrill me, even now.

Love, yearning, and thrills are the stuff of romance, but they aren’t the stuff of paying the bills. Chasing the trails of a fleeting insight across a notebook page or a computer screen is not a practical ambition. If anything, it’s the opposite of an ambition–an unbition, maybe.

This is likely why, while growing up, while pursuing my various degrees, I heard the phrase “Real World” an awful lot. Typically in a formulation like “There’s no call for ___________ in the Real World.” Or, “In the Real World, you won’t be able to ____________.”

I was playing the world’s most depressing game of Mad Libs, where it seemed everything I loved, everything I had any talent or passion for, was just a “verb ending in –ing” whose very proximity to the phrase “Real World” cued the sad trombone. WAH wah.

I mounted many ardent defenses of the relevance of “the humanities,” “the liberal arts,” and “the arts” as an indignant young musician, writer, and English major. I learned that music makes you better at math, that specialized vocational skills are a poor substitute for critical thinking skills, that classics is the best major to prepare you for a successful career in law, and I shared those facts widely and vehemently. I was too a part of the Real World.

Fifteen years ago, however, I caught a glimpse of something that changed my way of thinking entirely. And although it still runs away from my capacity to set it down on this virtual paper, today seemed like a good time to give it a go.

Fifteen years ago this week, I had a baby. Yes, yes, it was amazing and life changing and the heavens opened and the angels sang––but that’s not what I want to talk about now.

I worked as the mother of a newborn, starting back on a light schedule when she was just three weeks old. (What was I thinking?) I had cool academic work, but I also had a job summarizing employee feedback surveys for a very very large multinational corporation, from the janitors and cashiers all the way to the highest level executives.

Day after day, I sat on the floor next to my sweet and smiling infant, playing some Parents magazine compilation of classical music, reading about the Real World. I would nurse her and take tedious videos of her batting at a mobile and encourage her to say hi to the camera (I so regret having those moments of my parental idiocy recorded for the ages), and then take notes about what was happening in the Real World. I took her for long walks by the lake, I endured lengthy crying jags from post-partum depression, and I taught myself a hell of a lot about running a household, and then I wrote up summaries of what was happening in the Real World.

Let me tell you, the Real World was a dispiriting place where people followed a lot of pointless procedures and resented their superiors and almost as much as their underlings. The Real World also required a level of business jargon that nearly rendered the whole exercise meaningless.

Slowly, I started to get it. This baby, that lake, the pureed carrots, the horrible healthy first-birthday cake, the (once invisible to me) phalanx of helpers who carry women from pregnancy tests to lactation woes to sleep deprivation and beyond—so far beyond. This world is the real world. My world is real. Even more, the fear, the joy, the grief, the love–all of them so magnified in that first year of parenting–grappling with them, living with them, seemed like work more real than any I had done before. The intensity of that time fades, but the knowledge that the real world is happening right here and now persists.

This way to the magic.

This way to the magic.

While I still believe that things like writing, beauty, and imagination belong at the adult table of the alleged Real World, right there next to the hard sciences, business, and math (although, um, have you ever looked at what advanced mathematicians actually talk about?), proving it is no longer so urgent to me. We all have to spend time in that world, but we don’t have to acknowledge its claims to absolute authority.

Fifteen years ago, someone kindly pointed me down the path to the real real world. As she grows up and ponders her own impractical dreams, it is sometimes a struggle not to give some of that same bad advice, to remind her of the Real World waiting out there, so very close by now. But how ungrateful would that be?

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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

A Fresh Start

We “started school” this week, which was supposed to mean that we went back to a routine, but as it turned out I had planned a concert, an art museum tour, 2 dentist appointments, and a haircut for this week, in addition to piano lessons, physics one-on-one, the start of play rehearsals for Violet, a teen leadership event, book club, a sleepover, trying to put together the co-op schedule that keeps falling apart, and everyone’s schedule being messed up because the entire state shut down for two days for cold weather.

It might also have helped if I had done some basic things like dug my day planner out of the bag I haven’t opened for 2 weeks and located the next set of math books we were supposed to start. Or, you know, had any sort of plan.

We’ve had a reasonably pleasant week, nevertheless, but it was not the return to routine I was hoping for.

Still, the concert was even better than usual, and the tour was a terrific reintroduction to a modern art museum that may have traumatized Violet as a younger child. (Victoria said, as we drove away, “I think I may need to wait until I’m older to go to that museum again,” but we’ll just forget that part for now. You would never have known it from the way she interacted with the tour guide, in her little-adult way.)

We turned our attention to cleaning for the sleepover while the teen child was at rehearsal. I guess I hadn’t looked in her bedroom for a few days, because this is what I found.

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Irrespective of what photos of my own room might look like were I not expecting a photo session, this set me off on a barrage of angry thoughts, imagining what I would say when she got home, fuming over how I would have to make her clean up in addition to the other tasks she had left until after five hours of rehearsal, aggravated by her inattention to simple things like putting clothes in the laundry basket instead of 3 feet away from the laundry basket, on the floor.

Luckily, though, I couldn’t say any of those things because she wasn’t there. And sure enough, after the adrenaline surge of frustration passed, I felt a lot of sympathy for her. She had several responsibilities to fulfill this week, not much time at home, and it wasn’t about to get better for the next few days. I have been trying a new thing, when feeling like my teen is about to make me insane and say something I regret — I just go over and hug her without saying anything. This works surprisingly well.

So I tried doing the equivalent in her room. It took me about 15 minutes.

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This violates my parenting superego, which tells me that she will never learn to do things for herself if I help her when things are hard. But when I imagine what I would do if I walked into any room — any situation — and found that someone had taken it out of its chaotic state for me specifically so that I wouldn’t have to, I think I would have to sit down and weep with gratitude. I think knowing someone cared enough to notice that I was overwhelmed would change everything, at least for that day.

Maybe it’s not quite the same when you’re 14. But maybe it’s not all that different either.

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(Un)Frozen

If you are on social media at all, you know that the upper midwest is pretty much frozen solid. So, too, is my blogging. Not my writing, thank goodness. A lot of writing has been happening. But I miss blogging.

What finally convicted me (a nice, fancy, moralistic way of saying I checked myself) was a great post by about returning to my roots as a homeschooler. I just spent about 45 minutes trying to find it, so I can’t give proper credit, though I am sure it was either Bravewriter or Project Based Homeschooling.

When I think back on my happiest times as a homeschooler, they are intertwined with blogging. That’s in part because back in the aughts blogging was new and fun and felt a lot looser and a lot less contrived than it does now. It was fun to meet a lot of new people online, many of whom I still connect with via Facebook. It was exciting to be part of new things — homeschooling, social media, even parenting was relatively new then, for me.

But I don’t think that’s all of it. I think blogging helped me bring a level of intention to homeschooling — and to all the good personal and family stuff that sometimes goes along with homeschooling — that made it more immediately meaningful and rewarding.

I hope the blog will be a bit of a daybook, a chance to share more about homeschooling a high schooler, and (she said modestly) a place to pass on some of what we have learned as we head into our 9th year of homeschooling.

And because life is a little different now than it was 8 years ago, I hope it will be a place to talk more about reading and the writing life, and a place where what’s little and hidden, what’s imaginary, what’s pointless or beneath notice in “the real world” will be valued nonetheless.

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