Update, and books

When I started this blog, for one, I thought I’d have more to say about it, and two, I thought I would have more time to think, process, and write. Neither of these things have happened.

Since the beginning – officially, three years ago, I believe – this has been harder than I imagined. Then again, my kids are not me. I remember being their ages, and taking off and running with everything. Tabitha reads very well, but she doesn’t do it for fun. I remember spring break at school when I was her age, and pretty much reading the entire vacation, probably well over 1000 pages! She’s the one who thinks she’s missing out on the “social” aspects.

Asher, he likes homeschooling, he just doesn’t want to do it. He’s bright, especially in math, but there tend to be a lot of arguments about actually sitting down and doing work – who does computer work first, who does their reading time with me first, etc.

So… here’s a couple things that we’ve read recently; this may be interesting to people looking for appropriate books, especially for boys.

Tabitha (8) read “From Anna” by Jean Little. I think she liked it pretty well, and she did a really good job with vocabulary and expression and such, but when she was done with it, she kind of shrugged and wanted the next book to have “more pictures that go along with the story”.

We are currently reading “Heidi” by Johanna Spyri, which I think she’s gotten into more than she will admit, though it’s not as though she’s picking up the book for fun and reading it. Considering its setting, there’s a lot that we’ve talked about as far as what the world was like in the time that Heidi would have lived, and I think that’s helped her a lot, not just with the book, but with the realization that things weren’t always the way they were in the world – that amenities like electricity and plumbing and food safety and quick travel are all fairly recent in human history.

And Asher – we’re on our second “Boxcar Children” book. They’re no literary powerhouse, certainly, but present some kind of adventure, and aren’t terribly hard. He says he doesn’t like them, but I think he’s going to say that about just about anything. We finished “Frindle” by Andrew Clements. It’s kind of a funny book, but also showing some signs of age. It’s set in the 1990s, which in itself isn’t a problem; books have settings, after all, but when you take fictional characters and put them on “David Letterman” and the like – well, I guess I’m just getting old. 🙂

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Teaching with a Presidential Inauguration

Once upon a time, an event like a Presidential Inauguration was an event that was such that it was pretty much a given that kids would watch in school. Add modern politics to the mix, and now, with a Republican president being sworn in, all sorts of craziness took place, from boycotting it, to requiring kids to have permission slips to watch it, etc. This is one of the nice things about teaching the kids at home.

Politics aside, with Tabitha being seven now, I figured it was appropriate for her to watch the presidential inauguration. It was certainly not inappropriate for Asher as well, though I assumed (correctly), that at five, it wouldn’t be terribly interesting no matter what. I was fairly impressed, too, that Tabitha paid pretty good attention for quite awhile, although we didn’t watch more than an hour or so.

The following are some of the things that we talked about:

This is an event where a new President takes office (starts the job). Who is the new President? Who is the outgoing President? (Extra credit – who was the other major candidate in the Presidential election in November?) If you took your kids to vote, this is also a good time to let them know this is one of the things that you voted for – whereas local races and candidates may have more of a direct impact on one’s community, actually seeing an event like an inauguration tends to make it more real, since most of us aren’t attending our mayor’s swearing in. 🙂

This is a historical event – Donald Trump is the 45th person to become President of the United States. This ceremony takes place every four years, and it’s a peaceful process. (Extra credit – George Washington/past presidents.)

Younger kids especially tend to really focus on other little kids that they see at events like this. Pointing out who the kids are (Barron Trump is 10 and President Trump’s son, the other little kids are his grandkids) was interesting to Tabitha, who compared ages to ages of people she knew, even working out a couple of years that the kids were probably born in.

Who recent Presidents are – I pointed out all the Presidents who attended the event. Tabitha got to hear that President Carter was the president when her mom was born. Upon seeing George W. Bush, she already knew the name because she had a reading assignment about him awhile ago. I pointed out, too, that Hillary Clinton was married to Bill Clinton, who was President for some of the time her parents were growing up.

Pointing out other people – I pointed out Vice President Pence, which prompted the question as to what a vice president does. 🙂 There were also a couple of other people up front who we get flyers for when election time come around, so I also got to point out who those people are.

Civics – I mentioned that someone who is President has to be at least 35 years old. She found it amusing that her mom is eligible to be President, but her dad isn’t old enough yet. She then was asking about some of the people who were up there, and asked about Melania Trump. I told her that while she’s old enough, because she was born in Slovenia and wasn’t a US citizen then, she could not ever be President. Seeing Hillary Clinton up there, and knowing that Trump had run against her, Tabita also asked if she could run again next time…

Tabitha was also interested in the limos, and in some of the places shown (The White House, Washington Monument). I didn’t remember about the parade afterwards, but by this time, their attention spans were kind of at an end for it. (Asher seemed more to listen and tolerate the whole spectacle.) In any case, I couldn’t help but ask the two of them a couple times throughout the day “So, who’s the President now?” and both of them would answer correctly.

As far as Tabitha goes, she’s retained a good deal. At church, one of our friends asked her a little bit about the event, and she did pretty well with remembering facts. However, what was surprising and impressive was that even though we probably have not talked about it since the around the time of the election, she told our friend about the event, she brought up that a person has to be 18 to vote, so that in two years, her oldest cousin can do that, since he’s 16 now. This shows that she does retain a good portion of this information and also has made connections between the process of voting and the action of somebody taking office. (She did not, though, recall President Carter’s name, but she’s seven, and I haven’t made her learn the Presidents yet!)

So what are we paying teachers for?

Watching kids’ programming, the airwaves are filled with ads for the website ABC Mouse.com. It looks like a neat concept, though my kids have never tried it. In various ads, there are different testimonials, mainly from parents, about how the website has made it fun for their kids to learn and how it has gotten them ready for kindergarten, etc. That’s all fine and good. The ads that bother me, though, are those with testimonials from experienced kindergarten teachers who say that by introducing the program into their classrooms, that the kids test scores have all risen dramatically. This may be the cynic in me, but the thought that comes to mind is, “Well, if it just takes a website to improve these kids’ education so much, why in the world are the kids going to school in the first place? What were you, as a teacher, failing to do, that a website could improve their education so much?”

I’ve been holding on to this study for awhile, wanting to comment on it, but as always, it seems like there is very little time to do this in. It comes from the Johns Hopkins School of Education, and is one of the very few studies focusing on public school students above grade level. Noting that there have been very few studies that look at this, one of the things the researchers endeavored to do first of all was to estimate how many public school students are at least one grade level ahead in math and reading.

Their estimate is shocking. Very roundly, they estimate that somewhere around 30% of kids in public schools are at least one grade level ahead. And while many school districts have “gifted” and “accelerated” programs, they also conclude that a lot of these kids are “invisible”, meaning that they really aren’t getting an education to fit their needs.

Really good teachers can teach kids at multiple levels in the same classroom. However, most do not, and as their performances are based on how many kids are at least *at* grade level (when there are performance-based systems), there is absolutely no incentive for the typical teacher to do anything with these kids. And, as Americans, we are stuck with the “social promotion” grade level scheme, there isn’t a whole lot of incentive for kids who are ahead to work very hard, because they won’t be rewarded for it.

Circling back to the first point in this post, I think it is amazing when parents take the initiative to teach their children all kinds of things before they start school, whether it be through a website or not. Little brains are capable of learning so much in these first years. However, I don’t see the point of getting a kid “ready for school” if the intention, in some way, is to get them far enough ahead that the teachers can be complacent about actually teaching them anything when they do get to school.

October Update

So how are we doing?

According to the laws of the state that we live in, we must have our oldest registered, informing the state that we are homeschooling her. It is also recommended that a certain number of hours be dedicated to lessons each year. They also recommend tracking these hours for one’s own reference.

I’m actually finding the exercise useful, being as it makes it easy to see what we’ve actually been doing. However, even with working a couple of hours six days a week, I’m not sure that we’ll actually hit the number of “lesson hours” recommended. The problem is, of course, the easier it is to work with the kids, the less time it takes to go through the work. For example, with Tabitha, a normal reading exercise usually takes her 15-20 minutes to complete. On a day when she’s being stubborn, it can take up to an hour. In terms of “lesson hours”, it looks better when she’s acting up, because then we have an hour of a reading lesson. In reality, though, she does better when it takes her the 15-20 minutes, because she’s actually listening well, and thinking about the lesson rather than expending her energy being upset and not concentrating. So, practically, I’m trying to make sure that she gets a number of thing in in a day, and not worry so much about the “lesson hours”.

However, it does get me to thinking – a LOT of what ‘education’ has become is the counting of hours rather than accomplishments. A school day these days typically lasts between 6-7 1/2 hours. If a child is in school, all of that gets counted, regardless of what was actually done. Now, I’m not counting lunch or ‘recess’ or any of these things as lesson hours, even though a regular school would be able to, which seems somewhat unfair. Furthermore, a teacher will have 30-45 minutes blocked off for students to complete a worksheet, for example, but if a student has it completed in 10, it still counts as 30-45 minutes of “class time”. At home, if that exercise took 10 minutes, I certainly wouldn’t feel right counting it as 45.

I’m somewhat surprised, though, at how much Tabitha and Asher actually enjoy their school time. This isn’t to say that it’s always easy, in particular for Asher who wants to wiggle a lot. They are learning a lot, and probably well ahead of where most of the kids are in the classes for their grades.

Shipping routes map (2012)

This site, Shipmap.org is a site with a fascinating, interactive map showing the routes of cargo ships for the year 2012. It was created by a firm called Klin, ostensibly to try to calculate CO2 emissions of cargo ships over the course of a year. (I would embed it into the post, but WordPress isn’t allowing it.)

By itself, it’s fascinating to watch, but it also can be used in a number of different ways for teaching.

I zoomed into the area around Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, then asked Tabitha to take a look. I didn’t have any labels on, and I asked her what she saw on the screen. “Lake Michigan”, she said as I pointed the mouse to Lake Michigan. I then pointed to Lake Superior and asked her what that was. “Lake Superior”, she said, without hesitating. I then pointed to a couple of places along the edge of the water that had little dots appearing nearby. “And do you know what is here?” She didn’t, but once I pointed to the locations of a couple of places that we’ve been, she got pretty excited about it. Not a long lesson, but kind of cool, especially for an impromptu session. (I did the same thing with Asher, and even at 5, he recognized the shape of Lake Michigan.)

Depending on age and interests, this map could spark all sorts of interesting things. Of course, there’s place location, but one can also see how goods move and where. One thing that was interesting to me was seeing how there are still ships that travel out past the Aleutian islands, probably mainly linking Korea and Japan to the United States. Russian traders first came out that way for things like fishing and trapping, and in the process colonized much of Alaska (including establishing Orthodox churches there), but as one can see now, this has changed dramatically (though those northern routes are still important). I’m sure there are countless stories, if one wants to dig into histories of particular areas.

Also neat to note is that this is a Mercador projection map, which, of course, has its distortions, but also makes obvious which are the circle routes just by the arcs that the ships’ tracks make.

And I’m sure, if one watches long enough, patterns such as seasonality show up as well, not to mention getting into the specifics of the types of goods going where. The developers claim that there are more than 250 million data points that put this map together, and it is a very, very neat thing to take some time to look at.

Sorry for the silence

Well, an update here – our first year, “unofficially” homeschooling (meaning that even though we were doing it, the kids were too young still to need to register anywhere) was somewhat of a qualified disaster. Somewhere about 2/3 through the school “year”, between one child’s medical issues, and all of them seeming to have taken turns being seriously ill at one point or another, our “plan”, flexible as it was, ended up kind of falling apart.

That being said, it wasn’t as if the year had been lost.

Tabitha is reading and reading well. Had she been in public school, she would have been in kindergarten, and by the summer, she was easily reading things that first and second graders read. She still likes pictures in the books, so hasn’t really reconciled herself to switching to chapter books without pictures, but in the meantime, there are a couple of series (one’s a Disney princess one) that are chapter books with pictures. She’s doing well in math, pretty easily going through the addition flash card deck, and has done some harder stuff both with addition and subtraction. (Not that she’s always happy to do it.) She’s got a good sense about a lot of things.

Asher, while not quite up to Tabitha’s level in reading, is close. He seems to have an astonishing ability to concentrate and pick things up (at least when he’s interested). Math is good too. As we shift into daily stuff with him, we’re going to have to work on things like handwriting (printing) because he sometimes acts like he’s allergic to writing instruments.

I can’t be to sad about that, especially in a district that is rejoicing in “improvements”, citing statistics that still show LESS than 50% of children enrolled at grade level for reading and math. Furthermore, the kids were still learning here, despite the health issues, which probably would have gotten Tabitha, at least, in trouble with some authority for days missed.

As the “school year” rolls around again, the kids will still be at home; our school district is dismal, and we can’t swing private school tuition, but we try as much as possible to keep them learning. 🙂

The early stages of learning at home

Tabitha, being 5 in September, would normally be in kindergarten. Her brother Asher would be in “K-4”, if he were in school (and mind you, these days, there is plenty of pressure to send them off early.) However, Tabitha is reading, doing addition and subtraction, and has known thing like letters, shapes, colors, numbers for ages. She’s also learning about geography and fundamentals of science.

One thing, though, that I have noticed is that she’s a fairly lazy student. I don’t say this in a bad way, because bright kids are often lazy, and one of the reasons that they seem “smart” is that they are always trying to figure out how to make things easy. Tabitha picks up an awful lot, but often when pushed a little, she rebels with the “I don’t want to!” which certainly is always a challenge to parents who are homeschooling.

So how does a somewhat lazy student get to a point where she’d probably be at least a year ahead of her “normal” public school class? We started early.

In saying that we started early, I’m definitely not saying that we started her on the “Baby Mozart” and “Your Baby Can Read” or even “ABC Mouse”. We did none of these things. However, from the time she (and now her brothers) were little, my husband and I talked to them, we read to them, we counted with them, we asked them questions. And once they started comprehending things, we’d change things up a little bit and ask them “silly” stuff, maybe pointing to a dog and asking them “Is that a zebra?” The first few times, it was kind of confusing, but once explained, questions like that usually get them giggling, along with them thinking. (And as they get older, adding in details like “but it has four legs and a tail” and watching them try to explain differences between dogs and zebras is certainly amusing!)

Several years ago, I won a book called Testing for Kindergarten: Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Ace the Tests for: Public School Placement, Private School Admissions, Gifted Program Qualification* by Karen Quinn. Now for most of us, the premise sounds somewhat absurd, because most of us don’t think that we ought to prepare kids for testing that young. In her case, she lived in New York City, and early testing like that is pretty routine in order to get kids spots in highly competitive “gifted” programs in the city’s public and private schools. In her case, the impetus was that her son, having had ear infections for much of his early life, tested so low that he probably would have started school in special ed classes. Knowing that there was nothing wrong with his brain, she was determined to work with him strategically to be able, within the course of about a year’s time, get him testing better than that. She was successful – very successful – in this, and this book, besides having a lot of tips specific to testing for schools, has an awful lot of resources and strategies for parents who just want their kids to be learning things early on. After all, their education begins at home! 🙂

*Amazon affiliate link