Category Archives: Parenting

Leap of Faith: A Homeschooling Story

With summer officially over now, or mostly anyway, it’s beginning to feel like it’s time to get back to work. Not that this summer wasn’t a busy one — it definitely was. In spite of this, I was able to squeeze in some time to stretch my creative boundaries and explore a bit, so I wanted to share the results with you as I ease back into a more normal writing schedule.

Specifically, I wanted to share a digital story I made (don’t worry, it’s short!) about how we came to be a homeschooling family. I hope you enjoy it and, just maybe, will be inspired to share your story, too!

 

 

 

 

Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director, admissions committee member, and adjunct faculty.  She has homeschooled her two boys since 2011, and recently published her first book, “From Home Education to Higher Education”, published by GHF Press in 2017. You can connect with Lori and find more information about college admissions for homeschoolers at: www.uncommonapplicant.com

Learn Better — A Book Review

The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice.

~ Brian Herbert

 

Dappled light, chattering squirrels, and the softest of breezes wandering through the branches of the surrounding trees – this is summertime in my backyard. The fragrance of sweet alyssum spilling out of the flower pots in the corner of the deck mixed with the perfume of the geranium bushes mounting from the yard down below is so thick as to be almost distracting. As I pause to take it all in, I reflect on the idea that the book I am holding isn’t my typical summer reading choice (I usually go for a good mystery or historical fiction), but it’s the perfect selection for this summer.

Much like the scent of the flowers in my garden, change hangs thickly in the air for my family this year. My youngest is preparing to head off to boarding school for ninth grade, and my oldest has registered for a full course load at the local community college for his final year of high school before he departs for an as-yet-unknown university next year. Our eight years of homeschooling are winding down, and I am eager to add any last-minute tools I can to my boys’ “tool boxes” before sending them off into the world. So, this summer I have been reading the book Learn Better by Ulrich Boser, which I first heard about on a podcast a few weeks ago, in hopes that I will pick up some ideas my boys can use in the next stages of their education.

Within the first few pages I find myself wishing I had found this information years ago – it would have helped immensely in deciding what to look for and what to prioritize as I selected or developed learning materials and classes. It also would have helped me be more effective as a teacher (when the boys were younger) and learning facilitator (as the boys grew older). It’s not too late, though, and Learn Better is also full of information and ideas I can apply to my own learning, too, including changing some of the self-taught approaches that just aren’t efficient (time to ditch the highlighters!). It turns out, educational researchers have discovered that there are better and more efficient ways to learn than the methods many of us use, but most of us, including professional teachers, just don’t know about them. Well, until now that is…

Boser’s book is constructed around six chapters, each delving deeply into the research around one key aspect of learning. What could be a dry recitation of psychology, neuroscience, and research findings, though, definitely is not – he applies every idea to his own learning journey and shares stories of others’ struggles and experiences, too. Even for the non-scientist, this book is entirely accessible and packed with ideas any of us can use. Here are a couple of examples that I think are particularly applicable to homeschoolers:

 

Value

Learning is hard. And something many of us know intuitively is that it’s difficult to invest energy into doing hard things, like learning something new, if we don’t know why we are learning it, if there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to learn it. On the other hand, if a subject has clear personal meaning, relevance, or usefulness, we are generally much more motivated to put in the effort because we see value in it. In addition, if we also have the expectation that we can be successful in achieving our goals, our motivation to learn becomes even stronger.

So, as parents, what can we do with this information? If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Why isn’t my child interested in doing their school work?” or “What can I do to motivate my child to learn new things?”, think about how much autonomy they have over their work and work schedule, or how much freedom they have to customize their work based on their personal interests. Can you give them more opportunities to direct their own learning by designing their own projects or making other choices on their own? It can be scary to loosen the reins, especially for those of us who grew up in traditional, highly-structured educational settings, but as Boser says, “We often need space to find value, and a wealth of research supports the idea of giving students control over how they learn a subject.”

Target

Understanding how to break learning down into discrete steps and ensuring that each individual student is learning exactly what they need to learn at each point along the way (regardless of age or grade in school) is a key aspect of learning. For younger learners this usually means learning basic facts that will form a foundation of knowledge that they can build on as they grow and progress, like developing reading skills and memorizing math facts. Once they have established this foundational knowledge and committed it to long term memory, they will be ready to connect new, more sophisticated learning and skills to this existing knowledge. In other words, targeting the appropriate learning at the appropriate time is key so new knowledge that is “at a level slightly beyond their skills” is connected to existing knowledge.

As parents, it’s helpful to envision memory and expertise not as a linear model, but as a “sprawling network, a system of hubs and links” that expand and strengthen with use. So how can we help our kids build expertise? Here are a few tips:

  1. Ask them to write down or talk about what they already know about a subject before they begin learning something new (this primes their memory and highlights knowledge gaps).
  2. Help them learn how to do their own regular, low-stakes assessments like self-quizzing or explaining new ideas out loud to themselves or someone else.
  3. Coach them to ask themselves “why” and “how” questions like, “Why is this information important?” and “How does this connect to what I learned earlier?”

 

While the ideas shared in Learn Better are highly relevant and useful for any type of student, this book is not just for those who may struggle with learning. Even for those who are academically strong, who already have a capacity for learning, developing the skills necessary to optimize their ability to learn is important. And yet, this is rarely something teachers and parents focus on. Add to that the notion that willingness to learn is also a key (but often unacknowledged) component of learning, and we see that our self-developed approaches to learning are frequently missing critical elements. Teaching our children to “learn how to learn” is a gift that those of us who are actively involved in our children’s education can give them. And if we start early enough, maybe they won’t have to undo a lifetime of bad highlighting habits down the road!

 

Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director, admissions committee member, and adjunct faculty.  She has homeschooled her two boys since 2011, and recently published her first book, “From Home Education to Higher Education”, published by GHF Press in 2017. You can connect with Lori and find more information about college admissions for homeschoolers at: www.uncommonapplicant.com

 

If you like this post, and would like to see what other homeschooling parents are reading this summer, click on the image below:

 

 

 

 

 

A Parenting Paradox

It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon here, and I had quite a few things I wanted to get done today. I just realized that I won’t be crossing even one thing off my “to do” list, though, and I couldn’t be happier. Instead, as I write this, I’m sitting on the couch, stroking my son’s head as it rests in my lap. He has a cold and is feeling miserable, so we’ve decided to spend the day snuggling, drinking tea, and watching movies.

Heaven.

Afternoons like this used to be much more common when the boys were younger. I was an “attachment parenting” mom, and physical closeness was a big priority during their early years. Even as they have grown older we are still a physically affectionate family, but it’s just not the same. And now that this son, my youngest, will be heading off to boarding school this Fall, I am fully, painfully aware that the daily hugs and regular, casual check-ins that have become part of the fabric of my days will be much rarer. So, any ideas of productivity are easily set aside today as I soak in this precious time together.

I used to think that raising little ones was hard, but I’m finding that parenting older ones is even harder, at least for me. When they were young there were certainly lots of challenges – sleep deprivation and the need to be constantly alert to choking hazards and other potential dangers was tough. I always knew what to do and felt like I could protect them, though; I was in control of circumstances. Now, however, I am not, and the struggle to find the balance between maintaining a close connection and making room for their increasing need for independence is an even more difficult challenge.

And it doesn’t help that I’m prone to worry.

After more than a decade of practice, the pathways in my brain that give me the ability to imagine every possible worst-case scenario for any situation have become deeply-entrenched. Not to brag, but I have developed a type of x-ray vision that enables me to see all the possible dangers that lurk around any corner my boys might turn. You name the situation, and I can deliver a list of possible problems and harms that can come from it, everything from simple embarrassment to heart-stopping physical calamities.

My worry game is strong.

I am convinced that letting go of our children is one of the hardest challenges life presents us.  It is a kind of paradox, actually. How do we stay attached, loving and caring for them every moment of every day, and yet unattached so as to provide the space they need to find and follow their own path in the world?

I think it comes down to trust. Trust that we have helped instill in them the confidence and skills they need to meet the challenges coming their way; trust that their choices are the right ones for them, even if they are not what we might choose; trust that they will still come to us when they need us, knowing we will always provide a soft place to land. And also trust in ourselves, that we can find the sweet spot between attachment and independence.

I have my work cut out for me. Cultivating trust in place of worry will not be easy, but as I look forward to these final months with both of my boys still at home, I can clearly see that this will be an important part of the process.  Not doing so would stall the healthy transformations we need to embrace and make the transition even more difficult for all of us. So, I will rise to the challenge, focusing on developing a greater sense of trust that my boys will find their way in the world, while also trusting that, on days like today when they need me, they will find their way back.

A Mile in His Shoes

He tried to hide it, ducking his head quickly as I walked into the room, but I had already seen his face. He was crying, again, and didn’t want me to see. So I pretended for a moment that I hadn’t, moving through the room and tidying things here and there as I debated whether or not to say something. What could I say that hadn’t already been said many times before? What can a mother do when her child is struggling, and she doesn’t know how to make it better?

This boy, my youngest son, is very much like me. Of my two boys, he resembles me the most in terms of looks, and especially in terms of personality — strong-willed, independent, and often driven by an internal engine that doesn’t seem to have an “off” switch. The latter trait can be particularly frustrating for both of us, especially when we face obstacles outside of our immediate control that prevent us from moving forward — we’re not good at sitting still or waiting. So we have both become very good at work arounds, at figuring out how to get things done in spite of challenges or setbacks, to the point that sometimes other people (even the people closest to us) don’t have any idea how much we’re struggling because we seem to be doing fine.  This trait also makes it hard for us to ask for help, because we don’t want to slow down long enough to explain the situation and ask for it, and because we feel like we should be able to figure it out on our own.

Except sometimes we can’t, and by the time we realize that, we’re already overwhelmed and exhausted.

This is the point my son had reached when I walked in on him that day as he was working on a written report. I knew reading and writing were challenging for him, and since they never have been for me, it was hard to know exactly what to do, but I did my best to help him figure out a variety of work arounds, like listening to audio books instead of reading physical books, and typing instead of writing by hand. But sometimes audio versions aren’t available for the book you want to read (which was the case for this project), and sometimes you just need or want to be able to write things by hand. Both of these are very hard for my son, and he has explained to me multiple times that “the words move around on the page” whenever he tried to read, and that he has to focus so hard on spelling words correctly when he was writing, that he lost his train of thought on the bigger ideas he wanted to communicate. I could certainly see evidence of these difficulties in his school work — the simple words and sentences in his papers didn’t come close to matching the depth and complexity of the ideas and questions he could express verbally. This is a kid who barely broke a sweat developing and delivering an hour-long presentation on Hannibal and the Punic Wars when he was in fifth grade, but who cried in frustration as he attempted to hand-write a simple timeline for his presentation board. In short, the gulf between his written abilities and his verbal abilities was wide, and getting wider.

So, as I tidied his room that day, realizing that we were both feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by these issues, I decided it was time to find some help. None of the solutions we had tried seemed to be helping all that much, and it was time to find out why. At first he resisted the idea of visiting a learning specialist and having some testing done, but over the course of a few days and a few more frustrating sessions with his report, he finally relented. In retrospect, I’m really glad that I gave him this time to think it over and to let the decision be his — forcing him to go through an evaluation process would likely have been counterproductive, damaging his self-esteem and undermining his growing sense of independence. Finding the right kind of professional support was an important part of the process, too.  Unfortunately, all experts are not created equal, and I had to invest a lot of time in finding someone who could affirm my son’s creative and intellectual strengths, and who could gain his trust by treating him with respect and without condescension.

During my search for professional help, I was excited to find an online tool that gave me a chance to “walk a mile” in my son’s shoes, or, as their web site says, to “experience firsthand how frustrating it is when your hand won’t write what your brain is telling it to.”  I asked my son to watch as I tried a few of the exercises, typing, fixing, re-typing, fixing again… the timer ran out every time before I could finish. I couldn’t believe it. How could anyone ever get anything done this way? When my son confirmed that the simulation was almost exactly what it’s like for him, my heart overflowed with compassion and admiration.  And then we cried together, but this time out of relief instead of frustration.

So, as we begin this next part of the learning journey together and I reflect on our experiences thus far, I’m grateful that I allowed the extra time for my son to come to his own decision, and for me to find the best learning specialist for our needs.  Now that we have a better understanding of how his brain is wired, and why particular activities are harder for him, his whole demeanor has changed. He’s feeling empowered and optimistic, even though we’re still too early in the process to have seen much in the way of results yet. Sometimes just knowing that there’s a path forward, and having someone who is willing to walk it with you, makes traveling even the most challenging of terrain much more bearable.

 

Thanks for stopping by today! If you enjoyed reading this article, you can find more on this topic here.

Homeschooling Through Chronic Illness

homeschooling-through-chronic-illness

I was talking to a new homeschooling mom a couple of weeks ago, helping her work through that “What have I done?!” feeling that so many of us homeschoolers have when we first take the leap. I reassured her that almost all  homeschooling parents have experienced that “I just jumped off the cliff” kind of panic, especially at the beginning, and I also told her what I tell everyone who asks me about my choice to pull my kids out of school: It’s the best decision my husband and I ever made.

That’s not an overstatement. My boys are so much happier than they were before, and are truly thriving in a way that I’m certain they wouldn’t be if we’d kept them in traditional school. Other people notice and comment on it, too, even before they know that we’re homeschoolers. I regularly have new acquaintances, or neighbors I barely know, tell me about an interesting discussion they had with one of my boys, remarking on how well they hold a conversation, or how thoughtful and engaging they are. And it’s not just my kids — other homeschooling parents I know have similar stories. I honestly think this is one of the most underrated benefits of homeschooling – kids get to be who they are, and get to relate to other people as they are, without any of the power dynamics and judgments that so many kids experience with adults when they’re in school.

So, I’m a big fan of homeschooling, and will enthusiastically talk to anyone who’s interested about the benefits of this lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. In fact, some days it’s really, really hard. And truth be told, there have been several occasions when I seriously considered sending the boys back to school.

You see, along with the normal responsibilities and challenges that come along with being a homeschooling parent, a few years ago another issue was added to the list: I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. This condition makes me feel like I have a bad flu for days, sometimes weeks, at a time, and when my symptoms are at their worst I run a high fever, my joints ache so much I can barely move, I pass out when I take a shower or stand up for too long, and food… well, even the idea of food makes me nauseous. On these days, helping my older son work through algebra problems, or teaching my younger son how to diagram sentences, are tasks that are nowhere close to doable. In fact, simple conversation is barely possible because I’m totally exhausted and easily annoyed. It’s during these times when the normal challenges of interacting with and guiding two highly-sensitive and energetic boys entirely overwhelm me and make me want to throw in the towel.

I adore my boys, and most days I welcome their higher-than-average levels of emotion and desire for interaction. The difficult part of having highly sensitive kids, however, is that their emotional antennas are so attuned – they  pick up on everything, and their highly-active imaginations envision every worst-case scenario. They just need so much reassurance, interaction, and physical touch, it can be exhausting even when my batteries are fully charged. So, on the days when I’m feeling terrible, there’s no missing the worry on their faces the tremble in their voices, and I do my best to put on a happy face (or the happiest one I can muster) and spend precious energy soothing them and trying to calm their fears, insisting again and again that I’m okay, when all I really want to do is yell, “Go away!”

But I can’t, because that would devastate them.

Adding to the difficulty is that I can’t take them to regular music lessons or sports practices — driving is not an option. This means that we’re sometimes stuck in the house together for days at a time, me laying on the couch or in bed feeling like a rusted out old clunker ready for the junk yard, them with minds like race cars revving, ready to go. It’s not a good dynamic.

As the boys have gotten older, though, and as I’ve become more adept at managing my condition, we’ve learned to surf through these difficult days a little more smoothly. We keep our schedule as flexible as possible, not getting too caught up in deadlines or plans we can’t adjust if necessary. They’ve become more independent in some of their work, and focus on the things they can do without my help when they need to. And it’s important to note that there have also been some “up sides” – they’ve learned how to do lots of household chores like cooking dinner, washing dishes, doing laundry, and taking care of the dogs (our version of home economics, I guess).

So, when I’m talking to people about our homeschooling experiences, I’m still honestly able to say that it’s the best decision we ever made. I make sure to let them know that there will be tough days, too, though, and there will definitely be times of doubt, significant doubt, even if they’re not dealing with a chronic illness. Everyone gets the flu or a bad cold sometimes, and there will undoubtedly be other family events that will disrupt things, so it’s okay to just “surf” during these times. You can trust that you’ll get back to a normal routine eventually and, if you’re lucky, maybe your teenager will even be able to bring you dinner!

 

If you enjoyed this article, check out more on the same topic at this month’s

GHF Blog Hop.

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On Goals and Purpose

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One of the great benefits of being a writer and a homeschooling mom is that I have a lot of control over our family’s schedule. This means the boys and I get to take a bunch of time off around the holidays every year to enjoy some time together while we recharge our batteries and prepare for the year to come. And, as we headed back to work and back to school a couple of weeks ago, we decided it would be a good idea to spend some time thinking and talking about our goals and plans for 2017.

It turns out that Hunter S. Thompson was able to provide some helpful ideas that guided us through our discussions. Early in January I re-read the widely-shared letter that he wrote to his friend, Hume Logan, in 1958, and found that Thompson’s wise advice about choosing goals that “conform to the individual” rather than making “the individual conform to the goal” was a useful guidepost, one I thought would be especially relevant for my high schooler. With college (probably) on the horizon for him within the next few years, I’ve noticed that it’s easy to get caught up in the same sort of high-stress planning and goal setting that traditional high school students face when thinking about college: Which classes? How many science labs? How many AP classes? SAT or ACT? What type of extra-curriculars? The hoops are many, and these questions swirl and swirl each time we consider and reconsider, each time getting lost in trying to “conform to the goal.”

Here’s the thing about my family, though: we don’t like to conform.

We have tried, many times, relearning each time that trying to meet others’ expectations makes us stressed and unhappy. And yet, as my boys’ primary teacher and (now) college advisor, I still unexpectedly fall into the trap of trying to follow a narrow set of standard timelines, courses, sequences, and testing schedules, all with the hope that people we don’t even know will someday approve of and validate my boys and their accomplishments, allowing them to pass through to the next set of hoops. But here’s the problem with this kind of thinking: it emphasizes the ideas that what others think is more important than being self-reliant and exercising your own judgment, that being “good” and following all the rules is more important than being independent and authentic. Most of all, it sends the message that personal goals should come from some external source rather than from your own understanding of your unique set of abilities, desires, and goals.

In our culture, it’s easy to grow up believing that there are certain standards we need to measure up to if we want to prove that we are “worthy” or “valuable”, whether these are grades, test scores, athletic accomplishments, acceptance to prestigious universities… the list goes on and on. These standards usually prioritize certain types of intelligence (logical, linguistic, and physical) and ignore other types (artistic, intrapersonal, and existential). As a result, our individual values tend to be based on these external standards, and we get caught in a narrow definition of what success looks like, often at the expense of ignoring what is inherently and authentically true and valuable within each of us, what Thomas Merton would call the “secret beauty of their hearts.” It’s heartbreaking, really. How many people today, right this moment, are suffering because they chose a path that was deemed “acceptable”? How many will never find their true purpose?

If I were to write a job description for myself, at the top of the list of responsibilities would be this: helping my boys recognize and express their “secret beauty” by identifying their particular abilities and desires, all while being guided by compassion, curiosity, and a search for meaning (instead of approval).  Or maybe, more simply and as Hunter S. advised, encouraging them not to “dedicate their lives to reach a pre-defined goal”, but rather to “choose a way of life they know they will enjoy”.  But this leads to an important question:  Am I qualified to do this job?

As the product of twelve years of public education, plus six more years of higher education beyond that, maybe not. It certainly isn’t easy for me. Checklists and schedules, indeed all things measurable, make sense to me, and I find that going back to them when I’m feeling uncertain helps relieve the anxiety that comes with navigating ambiguity (which I’ve written about here). However, when I’m able to remind myself that I’m trying to give my boys a compass, not a map, my job becomes clearer. And, at the very least, I’m willing to be a student right along with them since these are lessons that I’m learning and trying to apply in my own life, too. So, my primary qualification might be that I’ve made the mistake of “conforming to the goal” (and have written about here), and trust that there’s a better way.

As for the specifics of our plans and goals for 2017, I’ll share more about those in an upcoming post, along with some other guideposts we’re using to help us navigate through this year. And a bonus — I’ve finished the final edits on my book about college admissions for homeschoolers, so look for more information on publication dates, plus some excerpts, coming soon!

 

“Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living within that way of life.

The goal is absolutely secondary; it is the functioning toward the goal which is important.”

-Hunter S. Thompson

 

 

Now More Than Ever: The Importance of Finding Mentors for Our Children

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Photo Credit: Lauren Hammond, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

Tuesday night I had such a vivid and disturbing dream, one that brought up emotions so intense, I was forced to ride the waves of them all day the next day. In the dream I was in a small boat, at night, with an overwhelming sense that I needed to escape. The particulars of the situation are fuzzy, as they so often are in dreams, but there were unidentified people that I urgently needed to get away from. First, though, I needed to find my two boys and get them on the boat with me – I couldn’t leave them behind. Finally, as the three of us were about to take off into the watery darkness, not knowing where we were or where we were going, only aware that we needed to get away, I woke up, heart pounding and mind racing.

Having gone to bed before the official results of the presidential election were announced, but guessing the outcome already, my subconscious had clearly chosen “flight” from its menu of threat responses. As I woke to the sound of rain, the feeling of adrenaline still coursing through my body, my conscious thoughts picked up where my dream left off. We are no longer safe, but where can we go? What can we do? Is it time to make a new life somewhere else? And then sadness set in, thinking of everything we would be leaving behind, all our friends, the boys’ activities, our home. I decided to get up and take the dog for an early walk even though it was raining – I needed to move, to think.

Walking through the streets, passing neighbors out walking their dogs or driving by as they headed to work, I started wondering how others were handling this shocking outcome. I knew there would be some calling out for us to “come together” now that this awful election was over, but that’s not an option I could choose – as much as our divisiveness is hurting so many in our country, I wasn’t sure how to “come together” in an authentic way yet. Likewise, I suspected that others would be encouraging us to “dust ourselves off” and regroup for the next election. As much as I wished I could be, I wasn’t there yet, either.

As I arrived back home, mind still whirling, one of my mentors called me. I expressed my distress to him, my fear of where our country and world are headed, my faltering faith in humanity, and my uncertainty about what to do next.

His advice: “Wind your watch.”

This person is an airline pilot, and he explained to me that when something goes wrong in the cockpit, the first thing he and other pilots are trained to do is pause, to take in everything that’s going on before making any decisions on how to respond. This is his own plan for responding to the current political situation, too – to wait, to watch, and then decide how to respond. So, while I may still decide that “flight” is the best option (or may eventually choose “fight” instead), with time it will likely become more clear which response will be most healthy and constructive. The point is, I don’t have to decide right now, and in fact shouldn’t decide right now.

Wise advice, right? And a perspective I couldn’t have arrived at on my own, especially given the emotional state I was in. My other take-away from the conversation was this: we all need mentors. When we talk about mentors it’s usually in the context of gaining some sort of professional experience, guidance, or connections, and rarely (at least in my experience) about the value of personal or emotional mentors, people who can act as sounding boards, help steady us when we’re lost and confused, and serve as role models. For our children, especially those of us with particularly sensitive and attuned children, mentors are perhaps even more important as our kids work to shape their identity and find their place in the world. As parents struggling to figure out the best way to raise children in our current cultural climate of anger and divisiveness, finding mentors who teach, explicitly and implicitly, the qualities we want our children to develop as they grow into adulthood, and ultimately into leadership roles, is of critical importance. For me, these qualities include tolerance and compassion, first and foremost, and also critical thinking, the differences between facts and feelings, how to listen well, and the importance of reading and educating oneself.

As it turns out, there may be some cause for hope about this younger generation we’re raising. Those who are just a few years older than my kids overwhelmingly voted for a diverse, inclusive vision of our future. So, they’re on the right path, and we can help our future leaders continue to blaze the way. I know that one of my first priorities is going to be connecting my children with constructive personal mentors, people who want to have a positive impact on the world and can help show my boys how to ride their own emotional waves when they inevitably arise and, as Michelle  Obama said, to “go high” even when others don’t. And after that? No idea – probably just more walking, winding and watching for now.

 

If you would like to read more about this topic, click on this graphic to check out related posts at GHF:

mentors

“Bees on the Roof”: A Book Review

“Most of our experience, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories.”

—Daniel Pink

bees-on-the-roofFrom time to time I’m asked to provide a review for a new book, and I almost always say “yes”! I love reading new material and helping to support other writers. Usually the books are written for parents, but recently I was asked to review this one, “Bees on the Roof”, aimed at students in the middle grades. Here’s what I thought of it…

Learning through stories is different than learning by memorizing facts or individual ideas. Stories provide a context for information and, if well-written, create an emotional connection as well, helping our brains understand and retain specific facts and ideas much more easily. This is what Robbie Shell has done with her new book “Bees on the Roof”—she has created a compelling story that also does a wonderful job of educating us about an important environmental issue:  our diminishing number of honeybees.

Written for an upper-level elementary school and middle school audience, the story centers on a group of four friends who attend a science-focused junior high school in New York City. The main character, a seventh-grade student named Sam, is new to the city, having recently moved there with his dad who has been hired as a pastry chef at one of the city’s nicest restaurants. When he learns that all students at his school are required to form teams and design a science fair project, it doesn’t take long for Sam and his friends to land on the topic of honeybees. As the story moves along and the main characters begin developing questions and conducting research, the reader learns right beside them about bee colonies and how they produce honey, along with the problem of Colony Collapse Disorder and its potentially-catastrophic consequences. Because of the way the information is presented, woven into the story of these four kids as they confront common family and social challenges over a series of months, it’s unlikely that younger readers will experience a sense of information overload and, in fact, will truly enjoy learning about the important role honeybees play in all of our lives.

Also addressed in this book are the themes of teamwork and bullying, which are relevant with readers of this age group. However, from my perspective as the mother of a seventh grader, I found some of the bullying scenes to be a bit rougher than they needed to be, including one incident where a boy suffered broken ribs and another where a girl was forced into a closet with an older boy – nothing terrible happened, but it was still an unsettling scene. I also found some of the dialogue amongst the main characters to be a bit stilted and a somewhat mature at times for kids of this age, but the story was interesting enough to pull me through these sections.

Overall, the storytelling elements of “Bees on the Roof” are strong, with solid character development of the kids, an engaging plot, and a good balance of scientific information and story-related action. The approach of teaching through story makes it likely that young readers will remember a lot of what they learn about bees and our environment after reading this book, and I look forward to reading future books from this author.

 

 

Searching for Shakespeare

youdo-you-2Of all the challenges we face in life, finding our community, our “tribe” is one of the most universal and complicated. This has been a particular problem for me through the years, especially when I was younger and my family moved a lot. It’s been an issue for both of my boys, too, in spite of the fact that we’ve lived in the same town since they were quite young. And even when they were still in public school, finding friends that they really clicked with was always hard. As a mom who wants all good things for her kids, I’ve been somewhat distressed about my sons’ lack of friendships for quite some time, but I finally figured out a solution.

I decided it isn’t a problem.

I know – this goes against the common wisdom that kids need to spend much of their time with other kids and to have lots of friends their own age. We’re used to being uncommon, though. As secular homeschoolers we’re already a minority within a minority, and if you factor in that my boys are not like most other boys, especially my younger son with his emotional and intellectual intensity, not to mention his tendencies toward introversion, the pool of kids who are wired like him is pretty small. In other words, the likelihood that he’s going to find other kids his age who want to sip some tea (ginger peach, please) and discuss Hannibal’s strategic errors during the Punic Wars, or the imagery of Hamlet, is so unlikely, we’ve stopped “searching for Shakespeare”.

To be clear, he does spend time with other kids – he sings and plays guitar in a band, and is heavily involved in the local children’s theater community. It’s just that the other boys he meets are more into heavy metal than opera, and prefer to talk Minecraft over Rumi. So, his connections with them are pleasant and friendly, based on a shared interest, but they’re not what you’d call real friendships. Last year he decided he wanted to try to be better friends with some of the other boys in his theater group, and he started spending more time playing Minecraft so he would have something to talk to them about. It didn’t work. For him it was like wearing a coat that just didn’t fit, and he came home exhausted and discouraged. That’s about the time my husband and I began telling him, “You do you.”

I’m not sure where “You do you” came from, but it certainly sounds like something Shakespeare might have said, doesn’t it? It’s become a kind of mantra in our house now, too – my husband and I say it regularly to both of our boys as we remind them not to spend time trying be like everyone else; we want them to focus on figuring out who they authentically are and what they genuinely love, even if this means they might not fit in. In our opinion, as long as our boys are doing this, there really is no problem.

This isn’t to say that community isn’t important, though. We all need a place to belong, a place where we can be heard, understood, and engage in conversations about Hannibal or Rumi, or whatever our interests are. So, if any of this sounds familiar, if your kids are struggling to find their intellectual peers, too, let me share a few strategies that seem to be working for us: reframing the goal, letting go of the rules, and casting a wider net.

In an era where more “likes” and more Facebook friends are at the top of most people’s list of goals, it’s important to remember that quality trumps quantity. One genuine connection still counts as community, so finding someone who shares our particular intellectual passion is the primary goal for members of our family. And these connections don’t have to be with people of the same age, either. That’s a rule we’ve decided to let go of. My sons’ intellectual peers are often adults, usually family members like aunts, uncles, and grandparents, but sometimes tutors or family friends as well. As they develop and their interests change, my job is to cast a wider net to find others who share their passions and can help continue to engage and challenge them intellectually. We’ve already reached this point with my fifteen-year-old son, who loves building things. We talked the local maker space into letting him become a member even though he’s well below their minimum age, and found a community of wooden boat builders who have embraced him thoroughly. I would guess the average age of the people he’s spending time with at the workshop is at least mid-60s, but that has hardly mattered at all to him, or to them.

I’ll confess that there are often times when one or both of my boys are alone with their interests, and these are the times my husband and I try to fill the gap as much as possible with lots of listening, thoughtful questioning, and encouragement. The good news is that these times often involve lots of tea drinking, interesting field trips, and watching of TED talks. I now know more than I ever could have imagined about war elephants crossing the Alps, and have renewed my acquaintance with Rumi. So, not only isn’t it a problem, it has turned out to be a joy.

 

This post is part of a GHF blog hop. If you liked this topic, you can find related posts here:

 

 

 

Coming Out of Hibernation

fall-kidsFall is in the air here in Oregon, reminding me that it’s time to come back online and resume a more normal schedule. School buses are once again motoring around the neighborhoods, the first leaves are starting to fall, and the night air is crisp and filled with the smell of wood smoke. It’s been a busy, interesting, unusual summer, one that I’m sad to see end in spite of my excitement about what the next few months hold. I’ve had a kind of hibernation period for the past few months, allowing me time to withdraw from the world temporarily and work on a new and somewhat scary project… my first book!

For those who have followed me for a while, you already know that over the past couple of years one of my main focuses has been researching and writing about college admissions for homeschoolers. As a former university program director and admissions committee member, and now a homeschooling mom of two boys, this focus is a natural marriage of my two great passions: kids and education. After writing a series of articles on this topic last year, a publisher approached me and asked if I would be interested in writing a book about college admissions for homeschoolers, and there was no way I could say no! So, with a November deadline for submitting my first draft, I’ve spent much of the summer in front of my computer in a continuous cycle of researching, writing, and editing.

The good news is, I’m almost done! The even-better news is, I’ve had a fabulous time and have learned so much that I just can’t wait to share with you. So, I’m going to begin sharing bits and pieces of advice, insights, and just generally cool information over the next few weeks — stay tuned! The first article I’ll be sharing is about the top questions admissions officers ask themselves when reviewing a homeschooler’s application, and I think you might be surprised about at least one or two of them.

But first, a question…

As part of my book research, I’ve been asking college admissions officers about their schools’ policies and procedures for homeschooled applicants. At the end of the interviews, I ask, “What would YOU like to know about? What would help you do your job better/more easily?” Again and again admissions officers are asking:

“Where can I find more homeschoolers? How can I connect with them?”

So, I thought I’d send this question out to you home educators, college counselors, and admissions officers alike:

What is the best way for colleges who are very interested in homeschooled students to connect with us? Some online location? A homeschooling conference? Other?

Please share your thoughts, ideas, suggestions, insights — anything that can help us strengthen this bridge between our students and the colleges and universities who welcome them.  This will likely be the topic for a future article, so anything you share will help benefit others!

Happy Fall!!