Tuesday, May 22, 2012

How Do You Define Homeschooling?

As I was chatting with the dental hygienist last week while she was cleaning my son's teeth, she asked me which school the boys attend.   I still brace myself before replying to this type of question, assuming there is a strong potential the other person will have a critical opinion of homeschooling.  Once again I was surprised by the positive response, and especially by how lit up her face became as she exclaimed "That's so great! My sister homeschooled her kids -- I wish I had homeschooled my daughter."  I've lost track of how many times I've been met with this type of acceptance and support, and always appreciate it (guess it's time to start expecting it!).  But her comment about wishing she had made this choice for her daughter stuck with me all throughout the weekend.

I think the reason I kept mentally replaying the conversation is that I'm uncomfortable with limiting the idea of homeschooling to "doing school at home."  Yes, my boys and I sit at the kitchen table most days and do math problems and spelling exercises, so in that respect they have gone from one type of classroom to another. However, we actually spend only about 2-3 hours per day doing this traditional type of schoolwork, and I honestly think this is the least-productive learning my kids do.  For example, I taught my older son about decimals and percentages at the kitchen table earlier this year, and he did many worksheets and word problems where he was calculating percentages (correctly!).  He seemed to have grasped the idea.  So, imagine my surprise when we went out to dinner one night and I asked him to calculate the tip for our dinner bill, and he was at a complete loss -- no idea what to do or even where to begin! I realized that learning in context is key, and now he is responsible for figuring out the tip every time we go out, in addition to calculating change, taxes, and service charges.

I strongly believe that parents can teach their kids anywhere, any time, and probably even more effectively than in the classroom.  This is actually homeschooling, even if it doesn't occur in a school building during normal school hours. I am concerned when I meet parents who seem to feel disconnected from their kids' education, thinking it is best left to the "experts" at school -- this is not ideal!  Even for children who attend the best schools with fantastic teachers, the classroom environment is limited (and limiting), and any parent with the interest and energy can and should homeschool through family projects and "applied learning" opportunities.

As for us, some recent examples of homeschooling activities include supporting the boys in starting a business, tracking their swimming times and gymnastics scores, predicting weather temperatures and conditions, and producing movies about subjects they choose. And here's the best part: I'm having a great time and learning a lot, too!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Leaping into Homeschooling

My husband and I suddenly made the decision to homeschool our two sons in January of 2011, when they were halfway through 4th and 1st grades.  This hadn't been our plan for educating them, nor had we discussed the idea in any great detail in the months prior. In fact, we had just moved to Oregon from another state and specifically chose our new community because its school district was (and still is) so highly rated.  After six months, however, it became agonizingly clear that even in one of the best school districts with the best teachers, public education was not working for either of the boys.

Prior to leaping off this cliff, we had casually discussed the idea of homeschooling, but primarily in the context of "Wouldn't it be great to take a year off and travel around the world?"  So, the idea wasn't a completely new one and it was something I had looked into, but for me it still felt like one of those dreams where you find yourself walking into a testing hall, and then panic when you realize you haven't attended a single class or studied at all for the exam. The sense of responsibility I felt was instant and overwhelming, and the only reason I continued forward is because I knew, in a way that I only rarely know things (deep down in my gut), that this was the right choice.

My first day "on the job" I immediately began researching curricular options, materials, local support groups -- anything I could find that would help assure me that I could do this. What I discovered in those early days of research, and subsequent weeks of talking to family and friends about our choice, was not anything close to what I expected.  It turns out that over 2 million kids in the United States are homeschooled, and not just kids in families with strong religious views, or with learning or behavioral issues -- many families who just decided that their kids would be better off learning at home.  And I was especially surprised by how many friends and relatives said they wished they could homeschool, too! Wow!  Different reasons prevent them from making this choice, and it is certainly a very personal choice that is not right for everyone, so I was truly encouraged by their support.

Now, as we approach the end of our first full academic year at home, I can only say that this is the best decision I've ever made, and my family and I are more committed than ever to this path.  This doesn't mean, however, that I don't worry sometimes (okay, fairly regularly) about whether my kids will be seen as "weird" as they move out into the world, and whether I'm doing enough to prepare them academically and socially.  Which is why I am continuously looking for information about homeschooling ideas and resources and, yes, statistics, to calm my fears and validate our choice.  My reassurance this week comes from the "College@Home" site which is predicting that Homeschooling is the Future.   I love being on the leading edge of a trend!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Failing Productively

After publishing my last post, I happened upon an article written by a college professor about students' fear of failure, and her thoughts about how we need to help students learn to use failure productively.  (To read the full article:  Next Time, Fail Better)  The article focuses primarily on comparing how students in two different academic disciplines (computer science vs. humanities) have learned to deal with failure (or not), and how difficult it is for those who are not accustomed to experiencing failure to struggle through this experience, even describing it as "demeaning".  In my prior role as a graduate-level business instructor I was responsible for reviewing and grading many reports and business plans, and can confirm that business students (and I worked with hundreds of them during my time at the university) very closely resemble the humanities students Professor Krebs describes.

I certainly understand (all too well!) that failure is difficult, no matter who we are or how many times we have experienced it.  But as far as I can tell, teaching kids to deal with the negative emotions that come with failure is a critical skill on the path to adulthood, as is developing related skills:  personal insight, critical thinking, resilience, perseverance, patience.  As Professor Krebs points out, those that learn how to deal with failure also "learn something they can use to get closer to success the next time."  Failure is not something to fear, but something to use.

So, in terms of the idea of paying kids for good grades...

For some families, getting straight "A"s is the definition of success, and those kids may very well learn how to cope with failure along the way toward this goal.  But what insights are they gaining in the process -- what it takes to please the teacher they have this year? And what will inspire them to be patient and persevere -- financial gains?  Maybe it's just me, but this paints a very bleak picture of the world.  As an alternative, what if we defined success in terms of interests they have explored, insights they have gained ("Turns out, I hate basket weaving!"), and effort they have invested in developing knowledge and skills?  This is a different spin on the idea of "failing productively", with more of a long-term perspective, and I think it's a useful one.  It may actually help us produce adults who aren't afraid to think creatively and take risks, who care less about their public image and more about interacting with the world in a genuine way.


"The men who try to do something and fail 
are infinitely better than those 
who try to do nothing and succeed."  ~Lloyd Jones

Monday, May 7, 2012

Pay for Performance?

This past weekend my brother-in-law posted a question to his Facebook page asking what people think about the idea of offering financial incentives to his boys (one in elementary, one in middle school) for the grades they earn.  Neither boy is doing poorly and, in fact, are both bright and seem to have a variety of interests, so he is not trying to solve any particular problem.  I believe his question might be motivated by the family news that three of our nieces recently received admission to some very prestigious universities:  Princeton, Northwestern, and Carnegie Mellon.  Apparently he is hoping for equally wonderful opportunities for his sons, and is considering how best to help them achieve their potential.

As the mother of two boys myself (slightly younger than my brother-in-law's boys), this is certainly something I think about too. And the fact that I homeschool both of them only adds to the level of responsibility I feel for preparing them to enter the adult world.  As a quick aside, I am not an education expert, nor have I ever been a K-12 teacher. However, I have a graduate degree in business and worked for years in the organizational development and training field (focusing on training and motivating workers); more recently, I taught a variety of college-level and graduate-level courses at a large university, and I have a strong interest in educational psychology with a particular emphasis in learning and motivation.  So, while I have not conducted any research on this issue of paying for academic performance, nor have I taught kids who were motivated in this way, I do have a very strong opinion about it:  it would be a huge mistake.

Paying our kids for their grades sends a clear and unmistakable message that we care primarily about results, and that the quality of their output (as judged by others) is what matters.  While encouraging children to work hard and do their best is, without argument, our responsibility as parents, this represents only part of the equation.  What about input? How do we let them know that exploring, risk-taking, and boundary-stretching are equally, if not more, important?  I would much prefer that my sons try something new or difficult and fail, than go for the easy project or the easy elective course just to get an "A", and therefore more money in their pockets.  My goal for them is that they spend their youth figuring out what they truly like (and don't like), what their natural skills and talents are, and who they are as people, not as performers.  If they both were to graduate from high school or college with straight "A's", I would actually be disappointed.