A Response to the Usual Back-to-School Drivel

A recent issue of the Sunday newspaper supplement USA Weekend offered the usual back-to-school article; this year, the author devised a 7-point plan for parents sending their children back to their local school.

Here are her seven points, followed by my take on them  :)

1)      “Make contact with teachers by Week 3.” Personally, I’d want to know the adult(s) my child is spending each day with before I put her on the bus. But that’s just me. As the author says, “The goal is to open up the lines of communication between the most influential adults in your child’s life.” Again, we homeschoolers prefer that the most influential adults in our children’s lives are us. We’re funny that way.

2)      “Check that your child is reading at grade level.” This would be perfectly logical if all children learned at the same rate. But they don’t. I read at three; a friend’s homeschooled daughter didn’t start reading until 11. Both of us could read massive novels at age 13. So let’s not try to force kids into a mold; they’ll read when they’re ready.

3)      “Understand the importance of downtime.” We already do, which is why we homeschool! The author quotes an article from Pediatrics magazine stating that in 2009, 30% of 8- and 9-year-olds got little or no recess in school. That’s sad, but the remaining 70% probably don’t get much more downtime because today’s kids are fully booked outside of school. Downtime is sorely needed by ALL kids.

4)      “Analyze test scores.” Because test scores tell you how smart your child is, right? No! Some very bright kids don’t test well, and some average kids can score quite well because they can read the test-writer’s intentions. Schools (and our government) place way too much importance on test scores.

5)      “Stay on track for college.” Here we go again. Not all kids should go to college. Not all kids need to go to college. And given the number of college grads now underemployed and unemployed, college is not a guarantee of a promising job future. Determine if your child is college material and go from there.

6)      “Don’t trash-talk about math.” Well, duh. You never trash-talk things you want your child to enjoy and excel in. But why math in particular? Be open to all of your child’s interests and give him plenty of opportunities to explore the world around him.

7)      “Be part of the learning community.” The author recommends going to school meetings, being a school volunteer and going to the school play. Beans! My parents never showed up at school except for occasional parent-teacher nights and my graduations, yet I still made the honor roll. Let’s be honest: being part of the “learning community” is just a way for the school to butt into and usurp your family life. Replace the phrase ‘learning community” with “family.” Be there for your child. Read to her, answer her questions, take her to museums, zoos and anywhere else that piques her curiosity. Put your energy into your child instead of the PTA. The time you put into actually being a parent is priceless.

“Doing School” Isn’t All Bad

It occurs to me that by explaining how I learned to let my kids pursue learning, I might be making it seem like my kids’ homeschooling years were spent in free exploration. But that’s not what happened.

For many years I “did school” with my kids on a regular schedule using formal curriculum. I did it that way because it was the only way I knew how to do school: the way I’d been taught. Of course I didn’t like the way I was taught (as a child, I deeply resented the daily boredom of school), but I tried to make it more fun for my kids than it had been for me. Also, until they reached their teen years, I tried to finish up before lunch so they could have their afternoons free to do what interested them. So I do think they had a better educational experience than I did.

One of the reasons I “did school” for so long was that my husband wanted to make sure the kids were at grade level. Not long after we began homeschooling, a homeschooling friend of ours passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly, and her husband had to put their kids in school. Since their mother had made sure they could do schoolwork at the appropriate grade level, they were able to assimilate academically at the school run by our church. Knowing this, my husband wanted to make sure our kids would be at grade level if anything happened to me. I agreed and made sure their studies were at grade level.

Of course what we soon discovered, after having our kids take achievement tests, was that they were usually a couple of grade levels (and in some areas, several grade levels) ahead of their age mates. So over time, I was able to relax when it came to requiring them to study certain subjects every day.

That said, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to include some basics in each homeschooling day. It’s kind of like eating vegetables; they’re good for you, so eating some every day is a wise move. Besides, you don’t have to spend hours on math or spelling; a little every day goes a long way.

Teaching Multiplication and Division

I taught my kids to multiply numbers using a variety of methods including grids, games (Math War was a favorite) and a musical tape called “Rappin’ with the Facts” (very 90s!)

Then I taught them long division using Saxon Math. At least one of them found it helped to turn a piece of notebook paper sideways to do long division because the lines kept the numbers in the proper columns.

Now that three of my kids are adults, I wonder whether knowing how to multiply and divide large numbers on paper has been helpful to them. (Personally, I don’t use those skills at all since I have a calculator.) I’ll have to ask them if they think it was worth learning those skills.

I assume most homeschooling parents still teach their kids to multiply and divide large numbers on paper. Do you? Why or why not?

Homeschooling for Free

It kind of alarms me that some homeschooling parents have a huge desire to homeschool their children for free or as little cost as possible.

I get that they’re trying to stretch a buck; aren’t we all these days? But the determination to homeschool for free (particularly at the high school level) seems a little short-sighted. In answer to such parents’ enthusiasm, all sorts of online businesses have now popped up offering “free homeschool curriculum,” but much of what they offer is worth about what you pay for it.

I won’t name sites, but I’ve clicked on the links people share in response to forum requests for “free homeschooling links,” and as far as I can tell these sites are light on substance and heavy on online advertising. The more people they attract, the more attractive they become to advertisers. Seems like that’s the reason for their existence.

That doesn’t mean that good homeschooling resources have to cost a fortune. There are many great resources available online that are no- or low-cost. If parents try looking for quality resources first and then find the low-cost options among them, instead of just looking for “FREE!”,  they might be pleasantly surprised.

Here are a few sites with resources that are high-quality and free:

Classic literature and history: Project Gutenberg

Free classic literature for Amazon Kindle (List 1 and List 2)

(How to read Kindle books on your PC for free)

Upper level math, science and history videos

Do you have others to add to this list? Please share the links in your comment—thanks!  :) 

A Fun New Math Book

Teaching my son math has been a long process. He finally gets the concepts of adding and subtracting, but only in a very concrete way. Taking it to the abstract is too hard for him, so he doesn’t do computations with numbers greater than 100 as his siblings did when they were learning math.

He also tends to lose what he’s learned if he doesn’t review his math facts regularly. So I occasionally pick up new books to use with him. A new book holds his interest even when the concepts it teaches are not new to him.

Recently I picked up a new book for him called “Subtraction Secrets.” It was recommended to me by a clerk in a teacher supply store. This book contains 30 map puzzles that require my son to do subtraction problems, then use the answers to determine how to find a specific point on each map.

He likes these problems because they’re entertaining. I like the fact that he reviews subtraction, he learns very basic map skills, and he enjoys doing the puzzles. This book is reproducible, so I can keep copying the puzzles for him as long as he needs them.

There’s another book in the series called “Addition Adventures.” I didn’t buy it because the addition problems in it require the student to figure out one of the addends instead of the sum. For instance:

Instead of 7 + 5 = ___

It says 7 + ___ = 12

My son’s not there yet; it’s a little too abstract for him. But we’ll work up to it.

Here are sample pages for both “Subtraction Secrets” and “Addition Adventures.” The publisher recommends these books for ages 6-10, but I think the typical 8-10 year old would find them too easy. Six-to-seven year-olds will probably enjoy them as much as my son does.