Friday, November 22, 2013

How History Convinced Me to Homeschool

It's no secret that schools in the United States are not what they used to be. As with most things, no one can agree on exactly why that is. Theories range from smart women now going into more high profile careers rather than teaching to kids today are unmotivated slackers. The general thought seems to be to throw more money and hope the problem fixes itself, and while I do believe there are many good ways to "revamp" the schooling system, when it comes to making your own family choices, waiting for a school revolution to occur seems a bit like a lost cause.

The more I've learned about history the more I've noticed glaring differences between the way we've historically schooled and the way we are today. Of course, things change for a reason. Penelope Trunk makes a great point when she points out that labor laws for minors forced the government to establish mandatory education, because what else were people supposed to do with their children all day if the children weren't allowed to work in factories alongside their parents? However, that doesn't necessarily mean that mandatory and public education is necessary anymore, especially during a time when more and more parents are working from home. As Trunk points out, "Today's New York Times makes it so clear that the United States education system was our way of getting kids out of factories. Everything in this country is set up assuming that parents have no idea what to do with their kids. We're now six generations past the parents who put their kids into factories. None of us could ever imagine doing that now. And most of us have a lot of good ideas about what to do with family time."
Her point is well put. If there are historic reasons why we do or don't do things, then why can't we change again to match where we currently are in history?

  • Kids aren't meant to be grouped by age. For most of schooling history in the United States children were all grouped together based on proximity rather than age. When every one has to walk to school, it's unlikely that you'll get a whole classroom full of six year olds. Rather, all ages are working together simultaneously. Not only is this helpful for socialization, giving older children responsibility and younger people role models, but it also fosters learning, since children are rarely "fifth grade level" or "fourth grade level" in ever single subject. In the American Girl Doll series, Kirsten, who is a Swedish immigrant, learns with the younger children because she doesn't speak English. But does that mean she is forced to sit in a classroom with younger children or is relegated to a secluded classroom so someone can work with her alone? Nope, she just pays attention when it comes to learning to read. I get to see this daily in my own house. My son is 3 and is beginning to read and write and can do some basic addition. He can't do these things because he's in some special montessori school, or because I work with him all day. He can do it because his sister is constantly sharing her knowledge. In the book How Children Succeed author Paul Tough notes that one of the most effective ways for children to retain knowledge is having them "teach" it to someone else. But how are you going to do that when you're in a group where you're all supposed to be on the same level?

  • Children are learning too much too soon. There is an episode of Dick Van Dyke where Rob and Laura's son Richie is thought to be exceptionally intelligent because he knows how to read basic words like "and" and "the." He's six years old. Today, a first grader who doesn't know how to read will be sorely behind. The problem isn't that children are forced to learn things that are too difficult, but rather that the expectations for the sheer bulk of knowledge is too great. Children need more time to play because play, more than any other thing, teaches children. While American schools are moving towards more integrated learning, the intense focus on reading and math basics leave little room for any play based learning. In the old British schooling system most children did not attend school until at least age 8, and those that could afford it would homeschool longer before packing their  children off. They understood that children need more time to be children. In many cases, too much too soon actually breaks your brain. As Jay Griffins wrote in The Guardian: "In 1960, Denmark (with Japan) had the world's highest suicide rate. Sweden's rate was almost as high, but what of Norway? Right at the bottom. Hendin was intrigued, particularly since the received wisdom was that Denmark, Sweden and Norway shared a similar culture. What could possibly account for such a dramatic difference? After years of research, he concluded that reasons were established in childhood. In Denmark and Sweden, children were brought up with regimentation, while in Norway they were free to roam. In Denmark and Sweden, children were pressured to achieve career goals until many felt they were failures, while in Norway they were left alone more, not so much instructed but rather simply allowed to watch and participate in their own time. Instead of a sense of failure, Norwegian children grew up with a sense of self-reliance."

  • Learning isn't integrated enough. With common core curriculum children practice and practice and practice the fundamentals of reading and math, the thinking being that without mastery of these basic skills all other learning is compromised. However, when we look at many of the great thinkers, their biography's rarely read that they mastered phonics and addition at a young age. Rather, they had PASSION for a subject, and mastered it because they enjoyed it. I jokingly talked the other day about how I've read too many novels where children read things like Homer and so it gave me unrealistic expectations for my children. What I meant wasn't that my children couldn't enjoy Homer. In fact, my daughter and I read Antigone earlier this year, which she loved. Rather, that I had assumed in my basic mastery thinking that a child reading Homer must mean said child had high comprehension levels, a large vocabularly, could sound out large words, etc. I've learned that none of these things were true. Children a long time ago did not read things like Homer or Pilgrims Progress because they could understand every little plot twist, but because the beautiful language captivated them and moved them to continue exploring these great works. This is how learning works. You have interests and learn basics through your interest.
Maybe phonetic learning has something to do with people not enjoying reading
  • There is a bad cultural attitude around school. One of the biggest reasons why we decided to homeschool rather than switch school systems or try a private school is because of the attitudes around school today. It is a joke, every one knows it is a joke, and there is little reason for children to treat it any different. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had a lack luster school performance because I wasn't challenged enough. I don't say that to mean that I'm some genius, in fact I think most children aren't challenged enough. I know that doesn't seem to make sense when so many kids are performing so badly in school but this is my logic. In elementary years when children complete a task early, they sit and wait. They poke the child next to them. Maybe day dream. There is no stimulation. They hear parents complain about school, they hear teachers complain about school, they hear their older siblings complain about school. As they progress in their school career the lack of self-exploration and stimulation combined with a consistently bad attitude around school creates a blase, apathetic, and at worst antagonistic attitude towards school. It combines the worst attitudes of "this is too easy it isn't worth my time" and "this is too hard and no one is helping me so why should I care" to create an entire attitude of "school sucks." You can hear this in how parents talk about school too. "This homework is ridiculously hard, I can't even do it!" "Why do I even send you to school since you don't learn anything!" "I can't believe you didn't do well on that paper, I think it's great!" In many of the school systems Americans admire, like Sweden's, Japan's, Norway's, everybody knows that school is serious, and it is treated as serious rather than the frivolous thing to be gotten through that it is here.

There's this great episode in Louie where Louie is at a parent-teacher meeting and all of the parents and teachers are trying to brainstorm ways to help the children learn and Louis goes "Yeah, but there's really only so much we can do know, it's school." Everyone just stares at him. "Don't you remember when you're know, school sucks." This is exactly why I have little hope for schools drastically changing anytime soon because ultimately people think it's school, school sucks. The culture has to change before public schools can do much good.

  • Life should not be so rushed. It's a fact that the least stressed people are the happiest, and it's is also a fact that our children today are more stressed than they've ever been. If you think about the modern school day children get up and are off to school by 8, come home around 4, have an hour or two before dinner to do homework or extra curricular activities, dinner, then an hour of free time before bed. At most, children have 2 hours a day which are their own, to do what they want. But often those hours and weekend hours are taken up with after school activities. Where is the time for family? Where is the time to cultivate interests? Where is the time to just sit? It's not surprising children spend so much of their free time watching helps them to decompress after a long day.

  • Green space= more knowledge. Remember those old TV shows from like the 50's showing children playing outside all the time? Modern studies have shown that all of that outdoor time helped children learn and retain their knowledge from school. So much so that some are starting to say that limited access to green space is one of the "learning disadvantages" inner city children have....along with lack of nutrition and poverty and unstable families. Not only do children have limited exposure to the outdoors while they're in school, but often after school activities and homework leave little to no time for children to have unplanned free time. The APA recommends against things like video games because they produce a sedentary lifestyle, but what is more sedentary than sitting at a desk for 7 hours a day? This is obviously directly related to the epidemic of childhood medication. If you wonder how people used to get their children to behave so well in school or church it probably had more to do with the fact that children had more time to get their energy out than rigid disciplinary techniques.
  • Open access to information should make it easy for every one to homeschool. In the past rich people had tutors. They had access to information and informed people. Today, there is absolutely no reason why the vast majority of Americans should not live as the rich used to. The internet has become the great tutoring tool, and many academic minds are consistently available to share information, whether they be found in a museum, a zoo, or a university. Information is free in a way it never was before, except for the very wealthy. 

  • Children learn better from their parents than from teachers. Ok, that's not always necessarily true. But any teacher will tell you that the biggest difference between successful children and unsuccessful children is the amount of parental involvement with homework. Yet, studies have shown that homework has little academic benefit. So what then is making children learn more? Parents. That is because the kinds of things that help children learn aren't tests or special methods, it's character building traits like discipline, patience, and resilience. The kinds of things children don't learn from teachers but do learn from their families. Historically speaking schools did teach these values but with the modern P.C. culture and parents no longer being ok with teachers acting as...well, parents....character building is sorely lacking in children. And that's a problem, not because Christian values in our culture are deteriorating or something but because character building traits are how people learn. People with them who have access to education will go far, people without wont, as simple as that. 

As always, I don't think that everything was better in the glorious past. I'm not romanticizing the history that was, for many children, full of hard work. But the kinds of things that are time tested ways that humans succeed are often undermine by new ideas based on made-in-a-bubble research. It's almost as if we've taken out the foundational aspects of learning and left only the superfluous structures. I feel like most of the great lessons of our age is realizing that many of our modern improvements are actually hurting us, whether it's organic food or the over-dependence on pharmacudicals and schooling is no different. There is always room for new innovative thought, but it should not come at the expense of thousands of years of human thought and tradition. When your new ideas don't work it's not because people aren't applying them correctly, it's because there is something wrong with your idea. As people like to say, Evolution > modern culture. So where then do we go? I think a good start is to rethink a lot of things that we feel are immovables. Things I've talked about here, like mandatory education, starting children as early as possible, having teachers work as babysitters rather than instructors. Until then, families are going to continue moving out of the schooling system. And we're one of them.

Friday, November 15, 2013


We made one of these awesome little steamboats the other day and sent it a-floatin' in the creek. It moved although not terribly fast. I tried to steer it with a stick but accidentally pushed it over. Unfortunately, we lost our only passenger in the rushing current. Foil Man will be missed. He is survived by his wife, Foil Woman, and his children, Foil Man Jr. and Foil Child. 

How to Make a Steamboat:

Materials: Foil loaf pan, copper wire, tealight candle base, binder clip, and solid fuel. 

Wrap copper wire around a dowel rod, and clip off, leaving two long tails with the coils in the middle. 
Pinch together one side of the loaf pan and pull it forward slightly, into the boat. 
Put copper coils inside boat with tails going through pinched end and hanging down the backside. 
Clip in place with binder clip. Once the coil is heated, these tails will warm and push the boat through the water, so they need to be long. 
Glue or tape tealight base right below coils. 
Light solid fuel and place it in tealight base.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Fish Dissection

How to properly conduct a fish dissection according to a six year old.

1) Start with a fish

2) Cut it open and cut out each organ

3) Don't forget to get the eyes and tongue!

4) Color a picture of what you see

5) Enlist some help if you need it

6) Glue together your abstract internal view of a fish.

Five Favorites: Homeschooling

Usually I post my five favorites at A Romantic Childhood, but I thought I should probably put this one on this page since it's all about homeschooling! In the past 3 weeks I've learned a lot about homeschooling: what needs to be done, what can wait, kind of pace we should attempt, what's important, what we can skip, etc.
I had homeschooled before in preschool and it was a disaster. I was way too hard and intense with my expectations and most days ended in tears. So we stopped. That was a large part of why we decided to start with a schooling program, just because I had to acknowledge I had no idea what I was doing. I think I've read too many Victorian novels about children listening attentively to Homer to have realistic expectations about what my daughter should be doing.
This time, soooo much better! And here's why:

I've stopped worrying about every little thing in my house being cleaned. I am the kind of person who annoys everyone in my house with my need to every thing to be put away, dirt to be off the floors, and every one to be sitting quietly in their chairs. Obviously, life never works like that, and I've had to compromise. Even so, I kick my children outside often because I can't handle mess (also because sometimes kids just need to run), and try very hard to enforce bans on toys staying in the playroom. But with school supplies being added to the mix, I've stopped trying to keep every thing away all the time. I'm still waging a hard battle against dirt and smudges, but right now there are math counting blocks all over the floor, the iron and board are still up from last night, PJs have yet to be put away, and there are a bunch of yucky leftovers in the fridge that are begging to be thrown out. But....

My house is so much more pleasant. It feels so much more lived in and happy. My son isn't sulking all day because he has no one to play with, the animals are chipper to all be together, and life is generally peaceful and content. Mostly it's because we've all stopped to smell the roses. I've realized that schooling isn't something we're going to be doing just from 9-3 Monday-Friday. It's something we're going to be constantly doing all day every day. If they're having trouble concentrating, it's ok to take a break and come back later. If we're having an off day, it's ok to do more tomorrow. If we're having a really productive day, it's ok to blast through lesson after lesson. In short, taking a lassaiz-faire attitude toward schooling has made it so much more relaxed and pleasurable. There is no work that needs to be done so we can have the rest of the day to do what we want. We have to create school to be what we want to do.

Repeat repeat repeat! I love being able to constantly incorporate what we're talking about and learning into everyday life. Although at school teachers are always sending home stuff telling you what they've been doing in school, whenever I would try to talk to my daughter about it I would get an effusive shrug and an "I don't know what that is." Same thing if you try to ask her what she's doing in school: "I don't know." Now, there is no way for her to escape haha. I KNOW what she's doing, she knows I know, and constant repetition and practice is always going on. She learns things so much faster.


I know this Calvin and Hobbes isn't real. I mean, obviously it's real, but it was created by someone else. Not that it matters, because it is probably one of the best comics I've ever read. Tragically sad and unfortunately spot on. Neither of my children have anything like ADHD or something they would need medication for, but unfortunately I think just by the nature of school most children tend to have to deal with this kind of abandonment of childhood for "real work." As I said before, we have so much more time, so much more time to do nothing. The children spent most of their day today making blanket forts around the house, which is such a typical child thing to do, but how many first graders get to wake up on a Tuesday and just do typical child things? 
There is nothing I hate more than statistical data on education because of things just like this. Data would suggest that to be successful, to be on track, to be like other children, Calvin needs medication. The end justifies the means. But for Calvin, right now, in this moment in his life, he needs something very different than being on track. Does that make sense? 
It's the same when I hear people say "Well, children in daycare have GPA's equivalent to or above their peers, so daycare doesn't harm children in the long run, and in fact may do them good," which is probably true, but to that little child right now crying about Mommy leaving, it is doing harm. As parents I feel like we sometimes focus too much on our children's future, doing what's best for them in the long run and completely forgetting that they are already humans with feelings and needs and desires that demand even a little bit of respect. Which brings me to....

I am so happy that I feel like despite everything not always going smoothly 100% of the time, my children get respect for being people. They are not constantly talked down to by authority figures, made to interact only with children the same age, spoon fed material they need to regurgitate later. I feel like such a hippy dippy person saying this, but I really do feel like it makes a difference that they feel like people. They have valuable ideas about learning, they have valuable opinions on topics, they have valuable friendships with people, they provide a valuable service in our family and community. And I think that in a million minuscule ways they understand that. They are more confident, more open to questioning things, more receptive to learning, and more personable. Every day is full of play and learning and they kind of weave in and out of each other rather than This is school time so I can't have fun/ This is play time so I can't learn. 

I don't mean to sound like this has been the end all be all for us, but rather that our eyes have been opened to a new way of living that doesn't involve set perimeters and deadlines but rather living just to live. I've talked before about the French system of the Cadre, the framework of discipline within which children should have absolute freedom, and our education has now fallen into this pattern as well. We have things we do, a cultural framework which we still follow, but within that life is boundless. For me, it feels like becoming a child all over again.