a practical guide to inspiring academic excellence
Principles of Teaching
Always Difficult, Never Impossible
Always difficult, never impossible has turned into the background philosophy for our school. If school isn't difficult, your students should be doing something else with their time, and if it is impossible, they will only become frustrated. Impossible was Anna in her early spelling days, Helen in her early math days. I hung on too long in both cases, hoping that they would suddenly have a breakthrough, but the level was simply too high. The spelling workbooks were too simple for Helen and assigning them to her was a waste of her day.
If you're writing your own curriculum, it is perhaps easier for you to tweak the levels of the assignments to suit the children; you can assign a review sheet if it's hard or just the odd-numbered problems if it seems easy. But if you are teaching from a boxed program it is important to keep tabs on what your children are learning, even if they do most of their work independently. Helen and Anna have no problem in declaring, "this is too easy!" and asking to be let off the work, but they are slower to admit that something is impossible. (Of course, there are children with the reverse tendency -- carefully guarding the easy work, and too quick to declare the problems impossible.)
Having this philosophy for the school also helps a bit when the children declare that something is difficult; the answer is simply, "of course it is!"
In the past, boxed curricula were fixed, and it was impossible to accelerate or decelerate individual subjects, but now several of the programs offer the opportunity to do an accelerated math program, or in the case of Calvert, there is also an add-on program aimed at children with reading, writing, and spelling difficulties. I have no direct experience of this program, nor have we met any families using it, but it looks worth investigating.
We met a family who homeschooled for a year in town before leaving on their sailboat, and while this may not be practical for most families, it could be a good idea to have a warm up for homeschooling if you know you are planning to leave civilization behind, rather than starting the big move and the homeschooling at the same time. It will give you the chance to make sure your programs and materials are pitched at the right level for your students while there is still a chance to raise or lower the grade level. (On the other hand, for some children, leaving their friends behind will be so tough that to start early would just be discouraging.)
Most programs have placement tests (as do many single subject programs such as Singapore Math), but it is still worth having at least a month to make sure the fit is right. We didn't have this because we had already been out sailing for two years before Helen started school in earnest, but it would have saved us some false starts, particularly in math.
Unschool when you can; teach when you must
There is a homeschooling philosophy called unschooling, where the children pursue their own interests at their own pace; some call this child-directed learning or eclectic homeschooling (although the eclectic homeschoolers generally have more structure than the true unschoolers.) To my mind, true unschooling is very unlikely to achieve the sort of well-rounded, academic background that I want for my children. Unschooling can also diminish a student's chances of attending college. One of my Harvard roommates now does interviews for Harvard, and she described an amazing interview with a bright, articulate high school student, but she reluctantly recommended against his admission because he had never written a single paper in the high school years, and she could find no evidence that he was prepared for college level academic work. Homeschoolers often do very well in the college admissions process, but you must be prepared to show proof of academic work over the years.
However, if there are topics that your children are particularly interested in, you can take those subjects off the school syllabus, and let them pursue them in their own time. In our case, that was reading. My children will read in preference to almost every other activity, and several times I have even had to ban "reading before school" because I was unable to pry them away from their novels to do their math. There's no need or benefit to turning that hobby into "school."
Much of our science work, current events, and art is also "unschooled." Your children will have different interests, but if there is some subject that they pursue without much guidance, let them do it; just make sure that they keep up the work in the other subjects during school time.
Homework is now assigned at a younger age; in many states it is mandatory from the first grade on. I don't think it's reasonable to expect most children to work independently at that age. If they do complete their homework, it's because their parents are supervising it, and that just means that the children whose parents are invested in their educations do their homework, and those whose parents are too busy do not, and the separation between educationally-advantaged and educationally-disadvantaged kids is merely exacerbated by school, not narrowed. Certainly when you are homeschooling, there is no benefit to the children doing "homework" in the early grades. Even in middle school, my children rarely do work outside of school hours.
Independent work, however, is important. The key here is being willing to shift your expectations and your response to their need/desire for help within the school year, and between years. In early elementary school, I found nearly every subject needed relatively close supervision and instruction; now in middle school the ratios are more nearly reversed, and I can assign a long-term writing project, for example, and expect the completed drafts printed up and on my desk on the due date. However, I'm still very much present when we tackle difficult science and history assignments, and to talk about literature, and so on.
As Marina Koestler Ruben reminds us in How to Tutor Your Own Child: "No question is stupid. No matter how ridiculous a question may sound -- or how obvious the answer may seem -- if a student is asking you in earnest, you should not chastise, judge, or mock in response. Take any request for information seriously."
It can be particularly hard to hold your temper and answer reasonably when the question is about a topic that you went over in great detail six months earlier. I try to remember that it usually takes many repetitions, in depth discussions, and manipulation of ideas for information to be learned permanently. I will, however, admit to numerous days when the answer is, "the same as it was last week."
Sometimes, you need to answer a question with the answer. Sometimes you need to answer it with a question. The trick is knowing what to use, and when to stop pushing and start explaining. It is something I've improved at over the years, so I was interested to read in Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion: "Ten minutes of teacher-driven background and then getting right to reading is usually worth an hour of, 'Who can tell me what Nazis were?' Efficiency matters." This has inspired me to add in a few minutes of background at the beginning of discussions or readings. One of the advantages of being a homeschool teacher is I know how much my students actually know, far better than a classroom teacher could. I talk to them at mealtimes and after watching movies and reading books; I know exactly what the history teacher taught, because I'm the history teacher, too.
I used to go through a guided reading with Helen and Anna, and break off in the middle of the reading to ask, "What does that mean?" or "Do you remember that event?" Now, I have become better at starting off before the reading and saying "Here's some background" and giving them a mini lecture on the topic, to clear up anything that I think will confuse them. If it is a topic we've already studied, then I ask questions to gauge their memory. If they start faltering on the memory, I switch to background mode. This is not the time to criticize them for not remembering; it's a sign to you that your techniques of teaching them how to learn are not working as well as they might. You don't want to turn this pre-reading time into an exam; you want to get on with the reading at hand.
What if you don't know the answer, to either your questions or their own? First of all, admit it. Then see how you can go about finding it out. If you're in a home, boat or R.V., carry as many science and history textbooks as you can, an encyclopedia (the Encyclopedia Britannica is available on DVD), and subject specific books such as the Doring Kindersley Eyewitness books, particularly about subjects that interest your children. If you're living in remote regions, you can't rely on the Internet to answer these questions, and even if you have Internet access, you probably shouldn't rely on Wikipedia as you never know how accurate the answer may be. If you don't have regular Internet access, but can send email or texts, it can be useful to have a collection of friends with good research skills. Once, I sent an emergency email to my best friend: do frogs have tracheae? We had spent about half an hour going through frog dissection sketches, but couldn't find a trachea. (Back came a detailed email: they do.) We also keep a list in the back of the school assignment book of things to look up when we do have Internet access. Watching you help them find an answer, even if you can't find it, is far more valuable than shrugging off the question and dismissing it.
One of the skills you'll develop in homeschooling is asking a series of questions, to push your students to make connections and make them think about the material.
So, where do you come up with these questions? The first and easiest strategy is to avoid asking them -- instead, ask your children to do a reading, and then to summarize the reading in their own words. When they're finished, read their summaries, and ask questions about what they've written. Do you think they've missed a crucial point? Ask them about it. You can also ask them to make value judgments on the material, especially in history and literature. Make them back up what they think -- the question, "Why do you think that?" is one of the best ones, applicable to almost every topic. Make sure they point to specific references in the reading (or lecture, or whatever media you are discussing). Ask "What is the evidence for that?"
Make sure you give them enough time to come up with good answers. Writing short answers or notes on an answer in a notebook can help them prepare for responding to questions out loud. Fill-in-the blank workbooks train students to answer the question with a minimum of sentence structure and complexity. Your questions should be the opposite: slightly open-ended, perhaps without a specific right answer (unless it's "what's six times seven" of course). Written answers should be in complete sentences (usually restating the question so that the answer can stand alone without the question), correctly spelled and punctuated to a level just slightly below the student's best work.
Can you summarize what happened in your own words? (I usually do this through writing assignments).
Write down three reasons that [whatever the event] might have happened.
What is your evidence for that?
Why do you think [whatever you're studying] might have happened as it did?
When discussing living plants and animals, ask "What could be an evolutionary reason for that? How would it help the animal survive?"
Because these are open-ended questions, you can keep recycling them over and over again. The goal is to make your student think about the material, not to formulate a quiz, so your knowledge does not need to be as precise as theirs. After Helen and Anna read all eighteen volumes of the Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence, their knowledge of life in Ancient Rome was far, far greater than mine, but when it came time to study the subject in school, I could resort to "Tell me about . . ." questions.
When you're asking questions, don't stop at one. Even if a student gives a good response to your question, you can "stretch it" (to use one of Doug Lemov's phrases from Teach Like a Champion), and ask another question that will stretch his knowledge of the subject.
Schools, homeschooling programs, and articles about education often talk about teaching "critical thinking." They may use the phrase "teach children to think like expert" or "apply [scientific] thinking" or something similar. As Willingham discusses in Why Don't Students Like School?, however, it is impossible to think critically about something unless you understand it. Teach content first. As your students understand more, they will naturally think about it in greater depth. Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise's The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home promotes the idea that students study chronological world history three times -- once in elementary school, once in middle school, and again in high school. The basic story is unchanged, but the complexity with which students approach the material changes dramatically.
The first time around in elementary school, history is simply stories about people and places, without much analysis or questioning. However, by the time the cycle comes around in middle school, and your students reach the same matter again, the story is (at least slightly) familiar and students are ready to ask questions about sources and make comparisons --
How do we know that?
Can you detect any biases in the author's approach?
How is this like [another event in history]?
How is it different?
If you follow Wise and Bauer's plan of studying history in two or three four-year cycles, middle school students will be covering material they've already read (or listened to) in elementary school, so the stories should be familiar, and your students will be able to ask deeper questions and make better comparisons. (Don't expect too much more than "familiar" however. I was surprised at how much content needed to be re-learned after four years.)
The US Department of Education Practice Guide also stresses the importance of asking good questions, and instructs teachers to:
Ask questions that elicit explanations, such as those with the following question stems: why, what caused X, how did X occur, what if, what-if-not, how does X compare to Y, what is the evidence for X, and why is X important? . . .
. . . Ask questions that challenge students' prior beliefs and assumptions, thereby promoting more intensive and deeper reasoning.
Ultimately, in late middle school and high school, students will begin to self-generate these questions, and use them as the basis for essays and experiments. However, it will be much easier for students to transition into self-questioning if they have had years of answering your questions, making summaries and evaluating material, and organizing their thoughts. Good questions can give them the basis for the analytical "critical thinking" they will be expected to do later, but I found it much more straightforward to teach a habit of inquiry rather than an isolated skill of critical thinking.
Budget Teacher Time -- preparation and checking work
Although I insist that teaching is "my job" for much of the year, and I say that I think of myself as a teacher, I seldom do as much day-to-day preparation as a classroom teacher would. I'm lazy that way. I prefer to spend time planning the syllabus, choosing the books, and so on, but day to day, it helps to have the minimum preparation time possible, which leaves me more time to check the day's work.
I have met homeschooling families who do far more day-to-day preparation than I do; in one family we met, the teaching parent (they did six weeks each in rotation) spent twenty minutes or so a day preparing the next day's lessons. Especially with older students, spending some time organizing a list of specific questions with complex follow up questions before class may be worthwhile. I'm a bit more willing to wing it -- ideally, I'd prepare more questions for them, but at this stage, I can still answer most of their questions off the cuff, and I am comfortable coming up with the next follow up question on my feet. However, our best discussions come outside of class time, which is when I really see the academic progress Helen and Anna are making.
Even more important than the lesson preparation time, however, is the time spent checking your children's work immediately after they finish. First, this shows them the value you place on their work. Second, the sooner you can make corrections or suggestions, the more they learn from it. Work left idle and ungraded is like a bag of cement left in a barn loft -- it turns to solid concrete surprisingly quickly. The longer a student's paper lies unread or the math problems left unmarked, the personal connection between the student and work withers, and corrections have far less impact.
Back in the 90s, the children I taught on the Calvert system would send in papers to Calvert for grading, so they could receive the official accreditation. By the time the papers were caught up to us six months later, the children were no longer the same person who wrote those papers and the comments and grades were meaningless. That is an extreme example, and hopefully one ameliorated by email, but students need your feedback, and they need it fast. In school I used to be infuriated by teachers who gave us an assignment, and then took two weeks to grade the papers and get them back to us. Why should I work hard over it, if you don't even care? (Of course, as William Armstrong reminds us in Study is Hard Work, students need to remember they are not writing the paper for the teacher, but for themselves.) The effect is even stronger when it's a parent doing the grading. When I taught English at the University of New Hampshire, many of my fellow teachers were forever returning papers a week or two after they'd been submitted. I assigned student papers due on a Friday and returned them on Monday, no matter what happened over the weekend, and I think my students responded extremely well to my interest in their work. (Or maybe they just liked having a free weekend.)
Towards the end of middle school, as I began to assign far more independent reading, much of my teacher time was taken up reading or skimming possible book choices a month or so ahead of the assignment. I'd spend several days when we had the internet using reviews and websites such as Good Reads to find suitable popular history and science books for example, and then read them myself just to make sure. If the book couldn't hold my attention, I took it off the syllabus. This is critical if you're making up your own syllabus, but even with a box curriculum, it can be worth pre-reading to make sure the books are worthwhile choices.
Making Schoolwork Relevant?
Many teaching programs emphasize making school and its content relevant to students, either through connecting areas of study to what's going on in the student's lives, or by having them create art projects that portray their understanding. The cult of the project is widespread in American schools in particular, and anecdotally, it seems that it is often the parents who have the most stake in these projects.
If you (and your children) enjoy arts and crafts projects, there is no harm in them, but if you are looking for ways to trim your school to the minimum time and the maximum efficiency, studens will learn more information more quickly in the traditional ways of reading, discussing, and writing, although active children will need breaks and time to run around after sedintary sessions.
I have presented the idea of school to Helen and Anna as the assimilation of knowledge and skills: this is what they need to know to be educated, discerning adults, who can protect themselves from financial and emotional swindles, analyze the biases behind what they read, and be able to evaluate current events and policies on the basis of our rich human history.
An otherwise interesting article on homeschooling on boats makes the following assertion:
Packaged programs often include irrelevant or impractical lessons, such as complicated science experiments unsuited to a rocking platform, or topics like the Industrial Revolution. Try getting your kids excited about that in, say, the Bahamas!
Most science projects can be adapted to life on a boat, and implying that you can't study the Industrial Revolution because you're in the Bahamas is appalling advice. Your students need a well-rounded knowledge, and you are responsible for making sure they have the opportunity to learn it, especially if you're the only teacher they're going to have. Local history is of course interesting and a way in to learning the skills and techniques of history, but a succession of local history lessons piled on top of one another does not make a cohesive curriculum or give students the background information that is assumed of educated adult readers.
So much of modern curricula planning is about making school relevant, but I don't think we need to do that for our children. If it suits you to make elaborate lesson plans that incorporate your daily life into your school plans, great. But if you don't, you can also go through a slightly old fashioned curriculum, forget about making it relevant for your children, and let the connections come in non-school time. Knowledge makes things interesting.
A few years ago, we happened to be studying the feudal system in Europe in the Middle Ages, while visiting Kosrae in the Federated States of Micronesia. I made no attempt to make the studies relevant to our lives yet, they were. Just behind the local hardware store in Kosrae, there is an overgrown path to 500-year old basalt ruins, which towered above us as we walked across coral courtyards. We had a slim brochure from the local museum to tell us about these ancient people. I would have struggled to make it into an academic history unit, but I wasn't trying to. We simply visited the site on a walk, yet school happened, because we talked about the ancients' feudal structure, and Anna commented that it was "convergent evolution." But that comment wouldn't have happened without their thorough, academic study of European history and evolutionary science.
Some packaged curricula have classes in knitting and modeling in clay. It would never occur to Helen and Anna that knitting and modeling in clay were part of school, and in a homeschool situation, arts and crafts don't have to be. A cousin taught them to knit, and they model in clay and mud and build boats out of coconut husks. When I describe the curriculum we followed and make recommendations for grade level work, I have listed art as optional -- it would be good for a child who has no interest in drawing or making things to have art classes, but in our experience, it's unnecessary for many homeschooled kids. Deprived of television, computer games, gangs of friends, and sometimes even the ability to run around and play, almost every boat kid we've met is an artist. We buy paper by the ream. The sheer volume of extremely "talented" boat kid artists is a testament to the power of practice. If artistic ability is merely a genetic talent, as it is often argued, there is no way there could be such a high percentage of good artists amongst the cruising community. It's practice.
I do, however, use art as a way of learning, but not by making "crafts." Instead, I frequently ask Helen and Anna to copy maps and scientific drawings with pencil sketches -- this is a fast way of learning. Being able to sketch out and label a human heart or the Mediterranean Sea is a very good way for students to learn the material, and I don't believe it matters what kind of "learner" they might be. Some children will be able to draw perfect replicas on the page, some won't, but regardless, the exercise is a useful one for building memory about the subject, and far more effective than labeling pre-drawn illustrations. (It's easier to organize too -- you just need some blank paper, pencil, and the source drawing; you don't have to buy (or search the Internet for) blackline drawings.)
In some families, music might be intrinsic to their lives and could be left off the curriculum with ease. In ours, however, Helen and Anna won't practice music without it being on the day's school schedule, although occasionally, after school, they carry on with their music and compose jingles together.
It's easy in a homeschooling book, or at home making plans for the syllabus, to become so enthusiastic about the academic part of life that there isn't time for children to be children. Afterschooling parents in particular need to make sure that their children have time to play. Reading some of the hard core Classical Education books makes me wonder if the children ever go outside, play in the mud, howl at the moon.
When Helen and Anna had their brief six week stint of conventional schooling (in grades one and two) while visiting my parents, they set off for school in the dark (it was February in New Hampshire), took the bus in to school, were kept inside at recess because it was "too cold out," and climbed off the bus in the dusk. If they'd walked down the drive to my parents' house and had their much needed snack indoors, it would have been dark by the time they finished. Instead, my mother, at my request, met them every day at the bus with something to eat, which they wolfed down while still in their snow suits and mittens, earning a precious hour of play outdoors.
Children need time to be alone, as unsupervised as possible, working out their world. They need time to be bored and to figure out how to fill that time, without relying on adults, video games, or television to fill it for them. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman describe a wildly successful program called "Tools of the Mind" in their book NurtureShock, where preschoolers and kindergarteners learn imaginative and cooperative play.
One of the tasks Bronson and Merryman describe is children playing fire station. Each child is given a role, and they work out their play plan on paper beforehand. Essentially, the children are given roles in an improv theater. It reminded me of my kindergarten, where we played a long-running, class-wide game of Emergency!, a popular television show about firefighter-paramedics in LA. We all played it, and in kindergarten, there wasn't too much of the division and sometime cruelty that emerged later. Perhaps we chose Emergency! because of the pole on the jungle gym. A few years later, it was the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman, with everyone having set parts.
Imaginative games (even television-inspired ones) are important for children's developments, for empathy, and I suspect they are helpful in developing readers and writers, for what are readers and writers, but creators of another world in the medium of sedentary words, instead of the running, pole-sliding, three-dimensional world of kindergarten play?
Do modern children have enough play time to create this world of the mind? I don't have researched-based answers to this, but I do have a feeling that too many parent-directed (or coach-directed) activities, too many "quiet the children down with a screen" parenting decisions (whether it be television, a movie, or a game of Minecraft) gets in the way of this part of intellectual development. Boredom is a precious childhood resource, not a scourge. It is from boredom that writers develop, readers emerge, artists draw, musicians play, creativity blooms.
My children were very lucky to spend most of their childhood in a predator-free wilderness, free from both possible human and animal threats. We were able to leave them alone, outdoors, without too much anxiety. I know I couldn't be that mother in New York who let her child walk home alone from the park, but I sympathize with the concern that our children are now wrapped in protective bindings, never out of earshot of adult minders, never solving their own problems, never finding Mirkwood in a grubby tangle of trees.
Last year, we gave a slideshow and talk about our travels, and at the end someone asked Helen and Anna if they were ever bored sailing across an ocean or living in the wilderness without the internet or television. Thirteen-year-old Anna took the microphone and announced, "Only boring people are bored." Of course we'd said that to them on occasion, but what we meant was: solve it yourself. The children knew that they couldn't come to us saying, "I'm bored" and expect us to provide a movie or a game. They now have an important life skill of being able to self-generate solutions, whether it is to read a book, draw a picture, write a story, create an imaginative world, or go for a hike. (Or even, perhaps, do their school work.)