Picture the well-equipped homeschool graduate of your dreams. What did they do all day at age 7, 11, or 15 to develop in the areas that matter? Only do that stuff. Learn to say no to good ideas that don’t fit.
In forming your ideal outcome picture, consider the traits that will likely cause someone to succeed in the new economy. A good place to start? Creativity. Critical thinking. Communications skill. De-emphasize the accumulation of facts.
A newly-minted grownup is entering the world to pursue their dreams. This person has been equipped by the homeschooling experience crafted by you. What tools do they possess? What kind of outlook? What kind of “leg up” do they have? Spend some time developing this picture. It will guide you when faced with tough decisions about how to spend your time.
My best friend growing up was the homeschooled son of a fiercely independent hippie farm lady and a chain-smoking amateur historian. While he lived in a house full of books and insightful conversation, no attempt was ever made to teach him to read, and he showed no interest. At age 10, he spent all day in the woods with his dog, making forts and cutting things down. He could bike, swim, and run barefoot over gravel. While I could do none of those things, the scales balanced, I thought, when it came to his alarming ignorance of basic academic skills. Hobbling in his wake as we traversed all things appalling to a city boy, I entertained a vague notion that permanent damage was being done to his mind by neglecting whatever it is that one learns in 5th grade. At some point very soon, I was sure that the world would give him a spelling test (or something) and that would be the end of his prospects.
Far from the utter destitution I had envisioned, my friend now brings down a six-figure salary and reads avidly for his own pleasure. Looking back, this is a predictable outcome. Here’s what I missed at age ten: By setting an example of intellectual curiosity and creating an atmosphere of learning, his folks had imparted something much more valuable than simply how to read: they had taught him to read. Before He learned the mechanics, he had already deeply internalized the lesson.
Conversely, many of the kids with whom I attended Ann Arbor public schools
show every sign of being functionally illiterate adults. They learned how to read in kindergarten and what did it get them?
Here’s a good question to ask: is it possible to grow up in my house and not read as an adult?
I’d like to share a word of encouragement on a tough topic. One of the challenges in my workday is to help develop the physical skills of kids who have labeled themselves non-athletes. Of course, as long as that label is in place, this is a major uphill battle. It is self-image, not physical potential that holds them back. The good news? None of this needs to be permanent, and working on it is totally worthwhile. Let’s examine.
At some point a your kid got picked last for a team on the playground or internalized the careless words or actions of an indifferent coach, and this heartbreaking moment set them on a course of disassociation from their own bodies. These negative beliefs can be reinforced when adolescents, seeking identity, are tempted to define themselves by rigid category. When kids who excel in art or academics see Athlete as a mutually exclusive or even antagonistic label, you’ve got yourself a problem.
Over time, It’s easier than it should be for parents to accept this fate. When our kids seem relatively happy and well-adjusted in their niche, one could imagine worse things than a lack of athleticism. Plus, it seems like those sports kids spend an awful lot of time and money on their activities, and who could imagine adding all of that to our plate? Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. Some piousness can even slip in at this point–What care we for the things of the flesh?
The flatulent sound has not been made that can express the contempt we should feel for that sentiment. Let’s be real. It matters if you are too clumsy to dance with a girl, too slow to avoid an accident, or too weak to help someone in trouble. Imagine the mountains not climbed, the races not run, and even the years not lived by kids who develop false and limiting beliefs about what they can do with their bodies. It is a great, and somewhat invisible tragedy that we should not settle for in our families. We were designed to be good stewards of our bodies, to figure out how they work and enjoy them. The truth is that almost everybody can do almost any physical thing they set their mind to with the proper training.
What to do if you’ve got a kid who’s more than a few steps down the un-athletic path? Start by re-framing their whole point of view with a useful distinction: a Jock is different than an Athlete. Show them that Jocks bloom early and have talent, while Athletes develop skills*. Jocks are one-dimensional and uninteresting. Athletes are smart and well-rounded. At age 30, a Jock rests a box of donuts on his beer gut and talks about the good old days while an Athletic ex-nerd competes in the Cross-Fit Games. Show them some examples of physical late-bloomers and help them see the long view. Creatively demonstrate how silly it is to allow a single snapshot of physical ability at age 9 to dictate a life of awkwardness and poor health.
It’s fine to ditch team sports if they aren’t a good fit, but never give up on the potential for athleticism. Let’s continue to make it part of the picture we paint when talking to our kids about their future, and continue to expose them to a wide range of physical opportunities. They will find something that connects.
*This idea of talent vs. skill has been huge in working with my 8 year old son who has an incredibly talented cousin/best friend. We talk all the time about how skill can eventually overtake talent, and that anyone can develop the skills they care about.
I often wonder how many of the daily homeschooling challenges I encounter are particularly common to men. Sorting this out is tricky since our attitudes and habits, not genders, are usually responsible for our results. The many cathartic conversations I’ve had with moms in the HS community confirm that the similarities in our experiences far outweigh the differences. Upon reflection though, I believe those differences do exist, and they are worth noting.
Most importantly, the HS Dad must be aware of what we might call “bad-cop programming”. While being the heavy seems natural to a man, its effectiveness is diminished with more than very occasional use. He must cultivate a manly patience, and be willing and able to discipline his children calmly so as not to set a bad example of flaring temper (Think Atticus Finch).
The HS Dad also tends to be challenged in finding a harmonious relationship with stuff. He is frankly astonished at the amount of it that is supposedly required. A man is understandably dismayed when he receives 40 lbs. of crafting materials with the math program he orders (I’m looking at you Saxon). He does not see this as a bonus. In his consternation, he may become a reactionary, and refuse to equip himself with the most basic necessities. This is dumb. A happy medium can be found by keeping a short list of essential items on hand. This might include sunscreen, snacks, water, diapers, wipes, and extra baby clothes.
Finally, if a man makes it his business to shoulder the load of his kids’ education, he must not fall into the trap of thinking he is a full member of the mom club. His presence among them changes the dynamic, and while they are happy to include him, it’s good to be sensitive to the fact that conversation would flow through more topics if he made himself scarce from time to time. Of course, manly pursuits require his attention, and so this should be a relief to him as well.
Grandparents are famously inclined to give parenting advice, and for the most part, we’d be pretty dumb not to listen. Some of their pearls become especially well-worn in the day-to-day of homeschooling; for example, my mom once made the frank and humorous observation that:
“It takes a long time to civilize a human being.”
The sanity-retaining power of this mantra can hardly be overstated. It is my mental go-to move when confronted with the inexplicable acts of my children who I know are smart enough to have not just done whatever they just did. It reminds me that you’re supposed to have to tell them the same thing a thousand times–that’s just how it works!–so no use being upset about it. Many angry tirades have been checked by her ten extremely well-chosen words. What a wonderful gift.
Now, while I’m pretty sure my mom actually is the smartest one out there, perhaps we’ll see she has some competition. Please drop your best homeschooling grandparent wisdom in the comments, and it will be like having an army of grandmas on your side.
As many of us have unfortunately learned, devouring a shelf full of homeschooling books can cause surprisingly high levels of discouragement and confusion. Sort of the opposite of what we intend when we crack open a book. However, the right keys can empower us to explore the treacherous landscape of education theory. Here’s what I wish someone had told me:
1. You are an expert too. Remember that you define success and set educational priorities in your home, and you have access to the feedback loop that’s created between student and teacher. If you are putting in the time, thoughtfully observing and interacting with your kids, then you are unquestionably an expert in their development. If someone with a lot of letters after their name makes a suggestion that disconnects from your actual experience, go ahead and kick them to the curb. They don’t know as much as they’d like you to think.
2. There is no blueprint for success. Nobody has it all figured out. As silly as it sounds to say aloud, it’s natural to try to find the person who has ‘solved’ education. The ridiculousness of this should be allowed to sink in before buying any books.
3. Prepare for extreme viewpoints. And take them with a grain of salt. It’s hard to whip customers into a frenzy by claiming to have a pretty good idea that works sometimes, under the right circumstances. In order to be heard above the noise, authors have to present their conclusions boldly. Don’t blame them; balance and wisdom simply do not move a lot of product.
4. Steal everybody’s good ideas. When you read a particularly compelling point by an ‘Unschooler’ or ‘Classical Education’ proponent, resist the urge to plant your flag on their side. You don’t need to join their team, just steal all their good ideas–the ones that work for your family. When you come across competing concepts that seem to have merit, chances are the tension between those things is good. Put them both in your toolkit.
1. The ability to capture an exact shade of meaning or emotion with just the right word simply enhances our enjoyment of life. (This is still a valid reason to pursue a skill, right?)
2. In the information economy, good communicators can create a range of unique opportunities. If our kids can’t rub two words together, they might be missing out financially.
Motivated by these ideas, a vocab building scheme emerged in my home which involved lots of legal-pad pages falling off the refrigerator. (Don’t you hate those magnets that can’t seem to hold anything heavier than a butterfly wing?) No more! The advent of a simple, free smartphone app called ‘Quizlet’ helped us to create a relatively elegant system. Here’s how it works:
When it’s time for me to read aloud to my kids, I grab the book and my phone, and cozy up with them on the couch. Sometimes, when we come across a word they don’t know, they ask me to define it. We then pause briefly to create a study card in Quizlet with the word on one side and the definition on the other. Both kids have a list, and I occasionally quiz them. When they finally own a word, we erase it.
The fact that they’re asking for new words makes this system preferable to some isolated vocab activity where words they don’t personally require are introduced seemingly at random. This way, they are learning in context.
Now, there are two caveats that are really important. First, take the long view by resisting the urge to prompt them. Stopping to capture every word that you think they don’t know will transform a beloved bonding activity into a dreaded chore. The idea is that you help them capture the words they want. They’ll soon have a nice list along with an intact enjoyment of literature.
Secondly, make sure they see you capturing your own new words from your own books. Create your list right next to theirs on your phone. After all, the point of an exercise like this is not really to increase their vocabulary in the short term, but to show them they are part of a family that values curiosity and lifelong education for the sheer enjoyment they bring.
Last semester, an article called “Your Life in 2033” led to a lively discussion with middle-schoolers in the ‘Junto’ class. In the weeks that followed I began to imagine what Explorers will look like in 2033. Specifically, what our roles will be, and how our thinking will need to change if we are to create a co-op experience that is not just relevant, but essential to students of the future.
Central in this conversation is the idea that information will increasingly be absorbed through online resources. When kids have free, instant access to the best minds in any field, they won’t need teachers in their immediate environment to dispense information. With every fact and formula conceived or recorded by humanity already at their fingertips, parents will be drawn to an organization that focuses on empowering kids through interactive experience. In other words, lectures are out.
This means we’ll need to start thinking of ourselves as facilitators rather than teachers in a traditional sense. Subjects that tend to use lecture as a default format (history) will still be taught in classroom settings, but they will look really different. Academic content will be learned at home, and then mastered by participating in classroom activities that emphasize critical thinking, creativity, and skillful communication.
Then, as we watch these lessons unfold, there will be various opportunities to coach our students. We’ll help them understand themselves by showing them their strengths and weaknesses manifesting in real situations. We’ll point out how their words and actions are being perceived by others. We’ll protect their capacity to dream by expressing the potential we see in them. A powerful transfer of enthusiasm will take place, not just a transfer of facts.
Re-imagining our teaching responsibilities seems a bit scary at first; the time-honored tradition of teaching facts makes us feel like we’re doing something valuable. It’s safe. But when we outsource that job, we’ll find that our new roles are more engaging, better suited to us, and more instrumental to the success of our kids.
The first step in implementing these ideas is to build better awareness of what’s happening in our classrooms already. We ought to regularly ask ourselves: Is what I’m doing right now easily replaceable? If I had put a video on, would the kids in my class have learned any less? Did anyone have an empowering experience in my class today? Did anyone learn anything about themselves? Sometimes, we won’t like the answers, but that’s okay. Just asking the questions will put us ahead of the game.
When we see better ways forward, we should put our trademark homeschooling fearlessness to work by adopting them immediately. While schools are bogged down by inertia, we are free to adapt quickly to changing times and create all kinds of advantages for our kids. Let’s set the pace!