Monday, June 1, 2015

When Literacy Inhibits Learning

I wrote recently about how I don't always use retention as a measure of learning.  As a homeschool family, we have the freedom and flexibility to introduce, explore, and be enriched by ideas and information without expecting the children to retain the concepts or be able to articulate them in an evaluation.  The point is for those ideas to be familiar when we return to them at a later time.  Likewise, we have the freedom to diverge from the cultural expectation that learning proceeds from a point of literacy.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love reading and language.  I have a book collection.  I learn best by reading.  I am by no means downplaying the importance of literacy.  I am simply playing up other kinds of learning at the same time.

My oldest is learning to read, and my second is just learning to write his letters, having learned their names and sounds.  Many educational materials make the assumption that literacy must come before learning other subject matter, limiting content for the sake of vocabulary.  Very often, when I look for worksheets for my boys on a topic, I find I have to skip forward a few grades to get their level of content, simply because children are expected to be literate before the topic is introduced.  But here's the thing: the entire occupation of a child's mind is learning, even long before they develop the capacity for abstraction required for reading. And sometimes a child is not ready to read, not because he lacks capacity, but because he lacks the attention span.

My children learn about the life cycle of stars, basic botany, anatomy, aviation, how firearms work, steam engines, major historical figures, clouds, and thanks to their grandfather, the fundamentals of Newton's Laws of Motion.  They do not learn these things because they are of unusually advanced intellect--they would both struggle in the classroom environment--or because I pressure them with high expectations and constant work (their workload is pretty light), but because I read aloud to them as part of their weekly curriculum.  I also let them watch documentaries intended for older audiences and make myself available to answer questions and explain the material.  The ability to read is not necessary to these types of learning.

It has generally been my experience with young children (not just my own) that if they are able to ask a question, they are also usually able to understand the gist of the answer.

This post has been linked to HHH, WFMWBusy Monday, and MYHSM

Monday, May 25, 2015

Homeschooling, and What it Means to Learn

I recently had a conversation with another homeschool mom in which we discussed what subjects we are covering with our six-year-olds.  As I enumerated the topics I have the Bat work on in a week, I realized that it sounded like a lot:

  1. English (reading and writing)
  2. Geography
  3. Math
  4. Science
  5. Music
  6. ASL
  7. Hebrew
  8. Life skills (chores, learning to cook, etc.)
The thing is that the workload really isn't very heavy, even though I'm taking a smorgasbord approach with science this year, covering multiple areas of the topic every week. The reason it isn't overwhelming is that there are multiple definitions of learning.

In a classroom, learning is characterized by retention, and necessarily so.  This has become increasingly the case in recent years as schools have had to devote more time to testing. If you don't retain the information, you haven't learned it.

Another definition is more fluid, but not suited to the classroom at all.  My grandfather once told me that everything must be learned three times: once to forget, once to remember, and once to understand.  Within this context, much of classroom learning focuses on the second iteration--the one usually required for testing--although it can also, in later grades, emphasize the third level of learning through essay assignments.  However, institutional learning really requires an objective mechanism for evaluation to be effective in any way.  Teaching for the sake of introducing a subject is a waste of classroom time because it is not quantifiable either for administrative records or for report cards.

In the context of homeschooling, I have the freedom to introduce a wide variety of subjects while not requiring my students to retain information from all of them.  As an example, I can teach addition and subtraction to the Eel and Bat emphasizing retention of the processes involved, but allowing more leeway and time on the memorization of specific problems.  We cover a wide variety of science topics, but I honestly don't expect them to retain much if it.  I just want the ideas to be fairly familiar when we approach them again later.  With other topics, I might expect retention, but developed over the long term.  I don't expect them to learn to write each letter well in the short term, but I do expect them to improve over the course of the year.  Likewise, I expect the memorization of ASL and Hebrew vocabulary to occur over time.

Both approaches to education have benefits a drawbacks.    In the case of the Bat, the presence of variety helps us cope with his short attention span.  In the case of the Eel, a more quantifiable approach might be better, because he likes the certainty of definite endpoints.  Still, he benefits from a broad range of subjects, because I can offer him a range of subjects to choose from when we sit down to study--an approach that works very well for him--or let him do less intensive work if he didn't sleep well the previous night.  I also like for both of them that the approach we use gives me the opportunity to find their skills and interests without a significant time commitment to any one topic.

Obviously, retention and understanding are more important in later grades, but flexibility can be very useful early on.

Value judgments aside, two of the things most homeschool families enjoy is the ability to be responsive to the needs of their students and the opportunity to develop and pursue their own educational goals.  With the inevitable diversity the results, comparing notes among homeschool families can be a hotbed for miscommunication if we let it.  

So, what do you mean when you say "learning"?

This post has been linked to WFMWMYHSM, HHH and Busy Monday.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Making Eggs Ahead of Time

I recently wrote about buying foods in larger quantities and doing more of my prep work in advance as my family grows.  I've also written about keeping track of how quickly we use certain items, so that I can calculate how frequently to buy them.  Eggs are an example of both these ideas. I know how many eggs I use in a week, and I have started purchasing enough at a time to keep my family stocked for a month.

One difficulty in buying eggs in bulk is the question of storage.  The way they come from the store will not fit in my fridge.  One of my solutions has been to prepare some of the eggs in advance such that I can freeze them.

Side note:  Googling "freezing eggs" will not yield useful results. 

We usually eat scrambled eggs for breakfast once or twice every week.  I have started preparing those eggs in advance and freezing them.  For my family, I beat five eggs in a two-cup measure, and then fill the cup to the two-cup line with milk.  I then add in any seasonings that I want and pour the mixture into freezer bags.  Depending on what I feel like, I might put some chopped vegetables into the bag first.  Once the bags are sealed, I stack the flat in my freezer.

When I'm planning to have scrambled eggs for breakfast, I let a bag defrost overnight, pour it into a hot, greased pan, and cook as usual.  As far as I can tell, there is no difference in flavor or texture between preparing the eggs in advance and doing it all the same morning that I cook them.

This post has been linked to WFMW.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


I've seen a lot of articles about the perennial question posed to homeschool parents: "But how will you socialize your children?"  With homeschooling growing so quickly in popularity,+ it's hard to imagine that this is still a common question.  However, it got me thinking.

When I was a homeschool student in high school (through an independent study program), my counselor pointed out to parents that most of the socialization in school is negative.  Why?  Because the majority of the day is spent in class.  The socialization children do during class is primarily done in lieu of listening to the teacher or working on an assignment.  I almost never encounter this point when I read articles about "socialization", but it's a good one, and one worth building on.

For a moment, let's reverse the question.  What about socialization in public school?

To start with, let's define "socialization."  Socialization is a technical term, mostly used in the contexts of psychology, siciology, and cultural anthropology. It is not interchangeable with "social interaction," and is mostly accomplished both naturalky and subconsciously.  According to the Palomar College Behavioral Sciences Department,
The general process of acquiring culture is referred to as socialization.
That includes the continuous process of learning all the roles we play in life (male, female, child, sibling, spouse, employee, leader, volunteer, friend, etc.).  How does the classroom environment contribute to that process? Since it takes the child away from his familial environments, normal conversation, and commonplace social contexts (the store, post office, etc.), could one not argue that the classroom environment, by its very design, inhibits socialization?  Certainly, the classroom prepares students for authoritarian workplace structures, especially those that build hierarchies on strict seniority (grade level).  But even in a professional context, most hierarchies are more flexible and incorporate at least some degree of meritocracy.

Indeed, the traditional classroom structure was designed specifically to produce individuals welk-suited to work on assembly lines and in cubicles doing highly repetitive tasks.  In other words, it "socializes" children for one, narrowly defined life role, often to the neglect of the other roles that inevitably occur in individual lives.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, if the system succeeds in its stated goal. The problems lie in expecting the system to do things it was never designed to attempt and when the system fails to accomplish it's stated goals.

Moreover, for how many parents is socialization a serious concern when choosing public school?  Most parents are more concerned with academic achievement.  They want to live in good school districts, not for their children's social opportunities, but for the assurance of good facilities, qualified teachers, and high levels of student achievement. Many parents hand out incentives and disincentives for report cards.  But what parent would do the same for social popularity? "You need to have at least 50 signatures in your year book, or no summer camp!"

Indeed, many parents worry about the social influence of school on their children.  They worry about peer pressure, for example.  They worry about whether their children's friends will be a good influence, whether teachers and curricula will contradict the values they wish to instill in their children, whether school culture will undermine the influence of home, whether their children will learn to bully or be bullied. In short, most parents try to limit the impact of socialization in public school, not accentuate it.  Beyond all of that, many parents worry that the school routine, with its attendant homework and extracurricular commitments, teaches children to undervalue their personal relationships and family responsibilities. Socialization is certainly not the driving reason for choosing public school.

In short, the question goes both ways.  Yes, if a homeschool parent chooses to keep her children away from other people, the social results might be negative.  But a parent who puts her child in the classroom also takes risks with her child's acquisition of social skills.  So, I suppose, the answer to "What about socialization?" is "How will you socialize yours?"

This post has been linked to WFMWBusy Monday, and MYHSM

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Museums with Kids: Scavenger Hunts

My family and I had the privilege today of visiting the Kansas Aviation Museum.  The boys were thrilled to see all the airplanes and engines, but I was most impressed with how the museum tried to make the experience child-friendly.

In addition to their interactive learning area, which featured toys, paper and markers, and flight simulators, the museum staff took an interest in making the "adult" exhibits engaging for all ages.  Near the entrance to the museum, along with the membership forms and event calendars, the museum thoughtfully provided simple printouts with scavenger hunt questions.  They had three different scavenger hunts: kindergarten through 2nd grade, 3rd grade through 6th, and 7th grade and above.  We worked through the K-2 sheet.

Not only did the questions help the boys take an interest in the more boring exhibits, but it helped them remember to stay with us as a group--hard to do in such an exciting place!

The idea was a wonderful one, and educational for all of us.  When we visit museums in the future, I plan to do a little research and create my own scavenger hunts to keep the boys engaged with the field trip.

This post has been linked to Busy Monday,  MYHSM,  WFMW, and HHH.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Leap

Now that my oldest is six and I'm expecting child number four, I can tell that my family is officially stepping beyond what is currently considered a "normal" family size.

It's not a matter of reactions from family, friends, or strangers.  There hasn't been much along those lines, beyond people commenting on how difficult it must be to have only boys or reminiscing about their own experiences as parents of a pack of lads.  The difference has come in my own awareness, thinking, and behavior.

Late last year, we noticed that the boys, as they got bigger, we're having increasing trouble behaving in the back of our sedan.  As the space became more cramped, they bickered more.  When the time came for us to reenter the ranks of the two-car household, we opted for a seven-passenger minivan.  Our reasons were many:
  1. We wanted to spread out the boys.
  2. I wanted more space for groceries. 
  3. We wanted a car that could better accommodate travel and moving.
  4. We knew that, in all likelihood,  our brood would expand and the car would be outgrown.
  5. We wanted to have a vehicle that could hold all of us and still have room for guests.
I've also noticed our rate of food consumption increasing.  It no longer makes sense, for example, for me to buy flour in five-pound bags.  Those only last about a week.  About a month ago, I finally broke down and bought a Sam's Club membership, so I can buy certain staples in larger quantities.  I'm also starting to structure my shopping list with the intent if buying enough of any given item to last us a month.  The last time I bought eggs, for example, I bought two five-dozen boxes.

We finally plugged in our chest freezer.  When our tax refund came in, we invested in the meat from a whole sheep, ten gallons of milk, and twenty pounds of chicken that I found on sale.  While I moved some things into the chest freezer from the one on top if our fridge, the small freezer is not empty by any standard.

I'm cooking in larger quantities.  Not only are my children starting to eat more, but I'm taking opportunities to cook double batches and freeze half.  I'm doing this with beans, bread pudding,  oatmeal pudding, and anything else I can think of.  I'm also cooking more things in advance, like the two dozen boiled eggs sitting in my freezer, or the batch of bean burritos I made and froze for lunches for the kids.  Cooking ahead can be useful for small families that are busy, but you have to weigh the costs and benefits.  I have finally reached a point where the benefits are making cooking ahead almost a necessity.

With laundry, I developed a system a few years ago.  That system helped me make sure I didn't forget anything.  If I didn't manage to follow it, everyone still had clothes, but we might go longer than is best between towel washings.  I'm not a natural when it comes to housekeeping, so mnemonics are important to me.  Sometime in the last few months, my system ceased to be a mere mnemonic and transformed into the only way for me to keep us all clothed.  I slipped up last week, and two boys ran out of pants over the weekend.

Bath towels are also becoming something that occupies my brain cells.  There are five of us, but our current home has only two towel racks, each long enough for only one towel.  What do I do with our bath towels?  I'm seriously considering the solution I employed when we had three towels and no towel racks.

The Bat and the Eel have largely been raised together.  Despite being two years apart, I am now educating them as if they were only one year apart.  The Bat has always beven more than willing to play at the Eel's level, and the Eel has always tried to rise to that of the Bat.  Now that the Elephant is a toddler, it is incredibly apparent that I have multiple age groups that I'm parenting.  I have to balance, for example, allowing the older two to watch movies they enjoy with movies that appeal to the elephant.  This distinction will be drawn out all the more once the new baby is born.

Meanwhile, I'm now homeschooling two grades at once.  I'll grant it's only kindergarten and first grade, but having to juggle two sets of coursework and occupy a two-year-old at the same time is a new stretch for me, and one I've never really had the opportunity to watch others work on in the past.

At the end of the day, I don't really feel like my family is big or about to be big.  I see other families that are bigger than mine frequently when we go out.  What I'm noticing is the transition from one stage of family size and development to another,  and there's an adjustment and learning curve that goes with it.  Up until recently, running the household has worked just fine with me basing my habits on what I would do if I had no children and then tweaking those habits accordingly.

I have reached a point where my habits need reexamination, and in some cases need to be rebuilt from the bottom up.  I can no longer cook, for example, like I did before I had children, and simply double the recipe to account for extra mouths.  My entire approach to cooking requires restructuring.

It's a fascinating process, and I'm excited to be here.

This post has been linked to Busy Monday, MYHSMThrifty Thursday, WFMW, and HHH.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Clipboards, or My School Prep Routine

One thing that has been invaluable to me these last six months has been a clipboard.  I use clipboards to hold and organize the Bat's, and now the Eel's, schoolwork.

We do a lot of driving, much of it last minute, so a mobile work surface is very important to getting work done at all.  And since I photo copy all worksheets, intending to use the original books multiple times, a clipboard is useful for keeping all the copies relatively neat and intact.

Every Sunday, I photocopy each boy's work for the week.  For the Bat, that includes subtraction pages, English work (consisting of spelling and phonics sheets, his McGuffey lesson, and some lined paper for copywork), geography pages, and his Hebrew lesson.  I collate and staple into packets the pages for each subject, and arrange the packets in the order they are to be done.  Then I shuffle into the stack any books from which we are going to read for the week so everything is in the order it is to be used, and I put all of that back into the school box in front of all my originals and the books we won't use that week.

On any given day, I pull the copy packet I want the Bat to use from the front if the box and put it in the clipboard.  If I know that we will be busy on a particular day, I put two packets in the clipboard. If one day's work went unfinished, the unfinished work stays on the board, and I put the next day's work behind it.  At the end of the week, all the completed packets are stapled together and filed. When we have traveled, I have put all the work to be completed during the trip on the clipboard, and simply rotated completed work to the back.  It's been a very efficient way to keep work organized on the road.  Work organized on clipboards can easily be put away in a car side pocket, and is fairly likely to stay clean and smooth.

Now that the Eel has started kindergarten, he also has a clipboard, and its use helps me keep his work and the Bat's separated.   While that might seem insignificant, they are working through the same introductory Hebrew book, but on different lessons, and their math work is from the same series of workbooks (one for addition and one for subtraction).  If I don't pay attention, it's easy to get their work mixed up, especially right now, while I'm still getting used to having two students.

With active boys, it's handy not to need them to sit at a table to work, or to require them to keep track of loose sheets of paper.  The boys are also easily overwhelmed.  I've sound the practice of copying and separating into packets really helps them perceive the work to be in manageable chunks.  And the clipboard seems to help with reinforcing that perception.

When dh has been in town and taken the boys for a day, it's been very easy for me to hand him a clipboard with the day's work on it. It's far simpler for him to be my substitute for an afternoon if I can simply give him the work he needs to oversee, rather than a stack of books and a list if page numbers and instructions.

While this post is an overview of what I do and why, my clipboards are an integral part of all of it.  Homeschooling the Bat and the Eel would be far more cumbersome and much less pleasant without this trusty office supply.

This post has been linked to The Mommy ClubHearts for HomeWFMWHHHM2M MondayBusy Monday, and MYHSM.