Smart Kids Being Dumb

I homeschooled my two boys, Noah (17) and Collin (13) from 2003 to 2009 before putting them in school. The school thing did not go well. Collin got on the B honor roll once which was the extent of either of their success with the whole thing. Noah seemed to think that not getting straight Fs was a high enough goal for him. Collin was bullied by both students and teachers. Noah contented himself with trying to make everyone scared of him so they would leave him alone. This last year I allowed them both to start doing online schooling which came with its own new set of problems, but they are finally getting the hang of it. Of course, for those who always KNEW I was making a mistake with homeschooling them, their lack of performance is proof-positive that homeschooling them was a horrible mistake which has most likely ruined their ability to become productive human beings who don’t live in someone’s basement playing video games.
If I had it to do all over again, I would never have put them in school. I would have gone straight to online schools once I could no longer continue homeschooling them myself. Noah had been on track to finish high school a year early had we continued homeschooling and now will barely eek out graduating. Collin discovered that he really was smarter than most people, including a lot of adults, and became nearly insufferable. After being in school, both of them are extremely concerned about the moral and intellectual development of their younger sisters who are just finishing kindergarten and 1st grade this week. They were not impressed with the end result of the school system to say the least.

In Which I Call Creationism Demonic

From “Thinking SciFi”

“O lord, thou hast searched me, and known me.” (Psalm 139:1)

Perhaps the most frightening attribute of God is that He knows everything about us. Everything! He has “searched” (literally “penetrated”) us and “known” (“understood”) us. . . Furthermore, He is everywhere around each one of us (vv. 7-10), wherever we are or could be. He fills all space, and there is no escape.

Go ahead, ask me where I found that quote.  Or even better, how ’bout I up the fun quotient and give you some options. Was it:

a. A site promoting atheism

b. A humor site skewering religion 

c. A devotional piece from the Days of Praise blog put out by a Creationist advocacy group

I’ll give you a moment to figure it out. . . Oh wait – did I give it away?  Yep, this “be afraid, Be very afraid” moment has been brought to you by none other than The Institute for Creation Research; a highly profitable venerable institution promoting creation “science”.  The very same people whom a federal judge recently said  are “entirely unable to file a complaint which is not overly verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering and full of irrelevant information.” Good to see our tax dollars hard at work there, eh?

This upsets me.  My opinions about the theological viability of creationist interpretations aren’t something I’m shy about.  I truly believe that it’s demonic.  Whether you understand that to be a metaphor for our ability to create and perpetuate evil or as satan whispering in your ear, the answer is the same; it is demonic.  (more…)

Today I’m thinking about school – Update

Last week, I wrote about my irate child who was very unhappy about being back at the local public school.  As I basically said, I can’t say that I blame him.  But, I have been uncomfortable with the idea of him returning to homeschooling because I still think he could have a good school experience.  So, here’s the update:

After thinking about it for a while and talking with the school principal to get his take on what the core of the issue might be, I decided that my son has not ever reconciled himself to the concept of necessary evils.  And that this was not a problem that started with or was limited to being at school.  So, I talked with the boy about it. 

When I asked him how he thought we should respond to necessary evils he said, “fight them?”  Ding!  Ding!  Ding!  We’ve found the problem!  So, we talked about how there will always be necessary evils and its rare that we can do anything about them.  And how middle school is pretty much a giant jumble of necessary evils all gathered in one place.  Which makes it the perfect place for him to learn this lesson. 

He decided that although he doesn’t like it, if I felt so strongly that this was a problem he needed to master, he would stop his campaign to go back to homeschooling – for now.  I agreed that if I saw that he had learned to deal with necessary evils in a healthy way, we could revisit the issue.  But I’m pretty sure that once he stops fighting and freaking out over all the dumb things that just can’t be changed, he will start to adjust perfectly well. 

So . . . alls well that ends well.  for now!

BTW Just because I know some people are so enamored with their own black and white view of the world, I am perfectly well aware that I can just make my kids do what they are supposed to do.  And I do that.  All the time.  (See the part where I forced him to stay in school and then go back to begin with.)  However, my kids are fellow human beings.  They deserve to have their feelings and ideas dealt with respectfully and with compassion.  And I think it’s very important not just to teach my kids to do the right things, but how to be the sort of people God designed them to be.  Making my kids do what I say – even when they protest – is EASY.  Teaching them how to approach and think about life is much harder, much more important and much more profitable to all involved.  So yes, I do discuss things with my kids and getting them to understand and choose wisely for themselves is central to my concept of being a decent parent.  Which is why this was ever a topic for discussion.  Just an FYI for those of you who might be tempted to offer opinions because you already know all the answers.

Jiu-Jitsu for the Bullied

I homeschooled my boys for years and have always caught flack for it.  However, the one group of people who rarely criticized my decision were other parents with school-aged children.   More often than not, they seemed to feel compelled to offer an apologetic explanation for why they weren’t homeschooling their own kids.  Why?  Because they were well aware that we live in a world where sending your kid to California to learn Jui-Jitsu to defend against bullies actually makes sense, for one.  It’s absurd.  I don’t think anyone who doesn’t have kids in school fully realizes how awful the social situation is at a lot of schools.  Even in schools where the adults aren’t part of the problem, so many kids are so poorly socialized that stopping the bullying feels like mission impossible. 

(It always kills me that “socialization” is seen as a potential problem for homeschooled kids.  Like the barbarians that run the social scene at many middle schools are well socialized human beings!  I’ll take my odd, but genuinely good home-socialized boys over the manipulative, callous and cruel children that are running amok at our local public schools any day.  Heck, my oldest has been trying to convince me to homeschool my daughters precisely so they will not be “socialized” the way the teens he attended school with were.)

I have a few theories as to why bullying has become such an outrageous problem:

1. We don’t let kids work out their own problems when they are young.  Whether they are at home or in daycare, we think it’s normal to jump in right away and mediate every conflict our kids have – particularly if there’s been any hitting involved.  This is not normal!  People get into conflict with each other and have to learn to navigate.  By jumping in right away, we deprive our kids of the chance to learn to stand up for themselves, weather having someone unhappy with us, learn not to take mean people personally and a whole host of other lessons that need to be learned in order to figure out how to get along with people.  I watched a documentary once about socialization of young children in Japan.  The teachers almost never stepped in to mediate conflicts between children – even when hitting was involved.  What happened was what happens in the most of the rest of life: kids stuck up for each other and offered comfort and distraction to each other when feelings were hurt.  persistently aggressive kids were avoided until or unless they learned to treat others properly.  We need to trust our kids to figure out how to manage their conflicts while they are little rather than waiting until they are older and can do real damage to each other.

2. We model a very selfish, demanding attitude for our kids.  We drive around screaming at other drivers for being in our way.  We complain about waiting in lines or servers who make mistakes as if it were the most outrageous thing in the world that we should ever have to deal with anything we don’t like.  We shouldn’t be surprised when our kids treat people to their face with the sort of callous, ungracious attitudes that we have been showing them their  whole lives.

3. We don’t show proper empathy towards our kids when they are the ones who are hurt or need attention.  Especially if they have done something they don’t like, we feel entitled to be as critical and harsh as we like.  If we hurt their feelings in the process we don’t offer any comfort – we just tell them they have brought it on themselves.  I’ve become convinced that many parents and caregivers (obviously not all!) are way too hard on their kids.  We practically follow them around correcting their every move.  We tell them not to touch walls as they walk by, apologize to strangers and scold our kids for not being aware of someone wanting to go by in a shopping cart when we’re in the store.  If we ever hear them utter a sharp word or even a curse under their breath we jump all over them.  If we follow our kids around, correcting ever little mistake and imperfection, they may well display a similarly critical attitude and lack of grace to other children.

4. We are judgmental and condemning of the people we see on TV, in the news, at the local store, our own families, etc.  Too many people are in the habit of pointing out the flaws, errors and even simple poor taste of the people around us.  Many times we do it because we think we are instructing our children in the standards we expect from them.  However, more likely we are teaching them to criticize and condemn people for everything from the way they dress to the way they talk to the choices they make that we don’t approve of.  In a school  setting, this is called bullying.

If we want our kids to be kind, gracious and caring people, we really do need to model that behavior for them.  And we need to give them more breathing room so they can self-correct, manage their own conflicts and feel OK about just being a normal, imperfect kid.  Then maybe we won’t need to give kids Jui-Jitsu lessons just so they can attend 6th grade without having a nervous breakdown.

Summer Camp and Peer Socialization

My 9 year old spent last week at a nearby nature center for summer camp. It ran from 8-4 with an overnight camp-out Thursday night. It was really the first time he’s spent that much time in that short a period away from his family. He had an absolute blast, got along very well with the other kids and only had one serious discipline problem through the whole week (which is some kind of record for this kid). And at the end of the week, I came to the conclusion that there is no way in heck I’m going to be sending the child off to school anytime soon.

While I’m pleased as punch that he handled himself well with other kids, I am not nearly so pleased with how quickly and (to me) dramatically, he oriented himself to his peers. Each day when he came home, he was wired up to the point of being completely out of hand. He was rowdy, rude, scattered and largely unresponsive to me and my attempts to get him to settle down. The problem is that he had spent all day getting positive feedback from the other kids for his antics. I actually heard a couple of kids telling their parents that Collin is really funny. Which he is. But he’s also quite over-excitable in a variety of ways. He will feed off the energy of those around him and rapidly become physically, imaginatively and emotionally over responsive. Once he gets going, not only is it hard for him to stop, but being in a state of over-excitement can be rather enjoyable so he doesn’t particularly want to stop. The simple fact is that he just doesn’t have the maturity to manage this aspect of his personality very well yet. And, unfortunately, because he receives positive feedback from his peers for this over-excitability, being with his peers all day only exacerbates this problem.

Now, if he were in a classroom with a decent teacher, he probably wouldn’t be quite as free to get himself wound up as he was in a fun summer camp setting. He would have to figure out how to toe the line (which for him would mean pushing just as far as he could while retaining a plausible claim of innocence for himself). However, simply figuring out when and where you can indulge in your favorite immature behavior isn’t the same thing as learning to actually manage yourself maturely. I’m pretty certain that he’d become one more kid who would say, “my family and teachers don’t know the real me. I’m one way around them, but when I’m with my friends, then I can be myself and I’m totally different.”

Real life is hard. In order to navigate it successfully, simply knowing how to act mature isn’t nearly enough. Our kids need to actually be mature in order to make good choices for themselves when they get out into the world. A young adult who’s “real” identity is peer oriented may know how to act maturely in certain settings, but will generally see their free-er, more irresponsible and immature selves as their true selves. Which in the real world usually means you need to get knocked around a lot before you start to actually become mature. Personally, I think we do much better by our kids to do whatever it takes to make sure that they go into the world already mature rather than letting potentially irreversible mistakes, tragedies and crisis teach them.

The other issue that came up with summer camp, which I found a bit disconcerting, was how quickly he developed a strong preference for his peers over his family. This summer camp included a night of camping out at the end of the week. I would hope, given the emphasis we have placed on family and the primacy of family relationships, that after spending a day and a half away from his family, that he would have some interest in reconnecting with them. Instead, he mentioned (twice) in an off-handed sort of way on the way home from his camping trip that he wished he were an only child. He also added that he wished his little sisters weren’t there so I could take him to the store on the way home. (Which is funny because it’s him and not the little girls who I don’t like taking into stores!) When we got home, before he had even said “hi” to his brother, he was begging to call a couple of the kids he had just left 1/2 an hour ago. For the rest of the day when I would suggest that he go to do something with one of his siblings, he would ask again to call one of his new friends or to invite them over. I guess that this makes some sense. You don’t usually have to sacrifice what you want to accommodate a peer’s nap schedule, temper tantrums or age differences. And when you are acting like a spaz, your peers will laugh or join in rather than telling you sharply to knock it off. Really, hanging out with his peers meant shedding the often uncomfortable bonds of self-sacrifice and self-restraint that living in a family imposes on you. However, that self-sacrifice and self-restraint are precisely the things he will need in order to reach his full potential in life. If he sees self-sacrifice and self-restraint not as natural and good parts of a normal, healthy life, but as impediments he can escape in order to seek his own happiness, he will be at a real disadvantage when it comes to achieving his best in life.

What is most amazing to me is that it is now 3 days since he got back from his summer camp. And he is still out of hand. I can’t even imagine what he’d be like if he were in school. I wonder how much problem behavior on the part of kids and immaturity in young adults is driven by the sort of peer socialization Collin experienced last week. We like to think that the structure of a school setting and the demands of teachers and parents are enough to counter-balance this peer socialization. However, from what I’ve seen of kids and young adults, this seems to be one of those things that would be a great idea – if only we could figure out how to get it to work.

Now mind you, I’m not saying at all that kids socializing with their peers is bad or unnecessary. However, having a kid (especially one as overly excitable as mine) spend most of his waking hours with kids who reward and re-enforce their most immature and selfish tendencies doesn’t seem like a particularly good thing to me. And that’s why, although (because?) my kid got along great with the other kids at summer camp, he’s going to have to be a lot more mature before I’d consider sending him off to school.

So what do y’all think? Am I over reacting? Off base? Right on?

In Search of the Perfect Curriculum – Help!

Ok, so I’ve decided to bite the bullet, pay the cash and invest in some actual curriculumn for my boys’ homeschooling for the next year. However, the problem is what curriculum. I’m not really interested in “school at home” type curriculum like A Beka. For kids my sons’ age (particularly the older one), I like the approach of The Well Trained Mind. However, as much as I love my kids, I have two little ones who need watching, writing that I want to do and various other things to attend to along with teaching two boys. So, in order to prevent burn-out, I need something with more guidance than you get from using The Well Trained Mind.

I like literature based learning such as Sonlight and Beautiful Feet. However, after reviewing their materials, I cannot in good conscience hand my children over to either of these curricula. Sonlight actual quotes white supremacist literature in their coverage of slavery for their junior high American history guide. (They feel that the condemnation of slavery and the south for practicing it is too unthinking and seek to offer challenges to this narrative.) Both of them include religion in ways that I find very problematic. For example, I think it goes well beyond the teachings of Christianity and scriptures to claim that Leif Erickson was commissioned by God to find North America (Beautiful Feet early American History). While a quick spin around this blog would show that I am a person of deep Christian faith, I have found that most Christian homeschooling materials take approaches which I strongly disapprove of, so I tend to avoid them.

On the other side of things, I have looked into the Great Books materials, which is completely secular. However, I am very suspicious of curriculum which seems to take its cues from some UN Commission and arranges units around discussions of human rights and democracy. I also watched a video of a teacher using one of their books to teach a story in which students were encouraged to “make connections” with their own lives. I think pointing out connections is fine, but putting the student and his/her life at the center of the study of literature is NOT how literature should be taught, IMO.

Soooooo . . . here’s my question for y’all: does anyone know of any good literature based curriculum out there which do not claim to be able to read the mind of God, question whether slavery was all that evil, use the bible as a literal history book, or engage in the worst of the modern liberal approach which has made our education system a laughing stock? Come on people! I’m not asking for much here – just the perfect, classical, non-ideological curricula which isn’t too much work for me. 😉 Any suggestion?

Gifted in Public

My kids and I took a little trip today to a local cave.  It’s a sight seeing sort of place with some cool geology and stalactites and stalagmites and such.  We’ve been there before, but not for a couple of years, so it was new enough for my boys for them to enjoy it again.  I was, however, kind of disturbed to learn that they let the bats that overwinter in the cave stay in the attached gift shop as well.  At least I think they said they let the little guano machines hibernate there – I was a little distracted corralling my girls.

What was interesting about this trip for me, however, was to watch the reaction me and my kids got from the various people on the tour with us.  You see, half of the group was attending through a local Young Mensa field trip group.  The other half were just random folks who had the bad luck to take the tour at the same time as us.  My kids were the youngest ones there and, as usual, they made a spectacle of themselves.  My girls (almost 2 and 3) did get obnoxious towards the end, but that was just a part of the problem.  You see, my boys are just very outspoken – quick to answer any question, even the rhetorical ones.  And they ask enough questions to get a reference librarian to tell them to give it a rest.  Plus they say odd things like, “I find these stairs more disconcerting than I remember them being last time.”  (The 9 year old.)  or “I can’t wait to get off of these stairs so I can put my feet back on terra firma.” (The 13 year old.)  The (almost) 2 year old pretended to be a cat-dog (a puppy that meows)  most of the time and dramatically warned us, “no touching” if we got too close to walls or “look out – monsters!” when we were warned about a creepy part coming up.  The 3 year old suggested that there might be a tiger behind a gate leading to a dark area she couldn’t see and pointed to every calcium carbonate formation in the place.

What I noticed and what I finally have something of an answer for, was that half of the group did not seem to enjoy our presence.  One older woman in particular repeatedly glared at me and my kids.  Her husband kept shaking his head at us as if to say, “what has this world come to?”  These are the responses I have become quite familiar with: the disapproving looks, the stares which seem to say “why don’t you make them shut-up!”, the averted eyes which indicate that we’re embarrassingly weird.  I get them everywhere I go it seems.

However, I noticed a quite different reaction from the folks with the Young Mensa group.  I caught of lot of knowing smiles and some rather reassuring nods from the parents whose kids had already made it through the younger, more rambunctious years.  They too probably knew what it is like to have kids who talk too much, ask too many questions, are too smart for their own good and unnerve the more normal people around them.

I live in a part of the country which is largely populated by much more somber, serious and conformist people that I am used to.  There’s a joke which captures the flavor of a lot of the people here which goes: “Did you hear about the Norwegian farmer who really loved his wife?  Yeah, he felt so passionately about her that he almost told her.”  We, on the other hand, are from Chicago.  We were socialized by intense, argumentative Poles, lively, talkative Irish and rowdy, playing-the-dozens African Americans.  Even if my kids weren’t the sort who go around using words like “undulate” and “non-sequituer” in a sentence, we still wouldn’t fit in real well here. (more…)

10 year old boys are right: word problems are evil!

A couple of years ago, I stopped trying to get my older son to do word problems. He just didn’t get them. Plus, they often required really convoluted thinking to figure out. I decided that once he knew algebra and knew how to create equations, we’d give them another try. Now he’s in algebra and we’re starting to re-introduce them. Knowing how to create an equation definitely makes it much easier to do word problems.

New research seems to back up my decision to drop word problems. Researchers have conducted experiments which showed that students who were taught the abstract concepts underlying math problems, without real world examples were better able to apply what they learned than those who were taught using real world examples.

So, I guess all the kids who have ever looked at a problem about two trains leaving the station, traveling in opposite directions and said, “this is dumb!” might be right.

HT: Joanne Jacobs

African American Homeschoolers

Joanne Jacobs points us to a story in The Village Voice about the growing number of African American homeschoolers.  If you can get past the first paragraph which is as bad a display of provincial ignorance as one is likely to ever encounter, it’s an interesting, in depth story.  Given the abysmal job the public school system is doing of educating African American boys in particular, more African Americans homeschooling their kids can only a be a good thing.

As a multi-racial family my experience has been that homeschooled parents and their kids are extremely tolerant of racial diversity.  We’ve never had rude comments from any homeschool parent or child regarding race.  Unfortunately this was not our experience during the relatively brief time that my oldest son was in school or even as we move through our community in non-school settings.  For us, homeschooling has been a good way to avoid having our kids exposed to race as a negative.  The one thing which I have found annoying is a pretty pervasive assumption among other homeschoolers that because they are not concerned with race, race is no longer and issue for any minority.  I can see where this attitude could be off-putting to a minority parent testing out the homeschool waters, but really it’s a sadly common notion in the world at large anyways.

If you are interested in checking out some of the African American homeschooling organizations and voices out there can check out these links:

The National African American Homeschoolers Association

African American Homeschoolers Network

African American Unschooling

The Orioles Are Coming

We have a small deck off of our kitchen where I hang our bird feeders. This allows us to draw them in close enough to actually see them when they come to eat. Visitors to our house in late spring and summer are often startled at the appearance of this fellow:

The Baltimore Oriole. Because of their extremely bright colors, these are some of the coolest birds to attract to your feeders. And of course kids are always excited to see a bright orange bird. Fortunately, it’s super easy to get them to come. We just put a shallow dish of grape jelly on the ledge of the deck around when the trees are just starting to leaf out and they show up within a couple of days. The brightly colored males show up first and the more muted females join them within a week or less. These birds tend to return to the same nests each summer, so once you attract a pair (or more) they will return year after year. Later in the summer, they will even bring their scraggly looking kids with them to nip from the jelly dish.

If you’re lucky, your jelly dish may even attract a gray catbird as the summer wears on:

These aren’t nearly as flashy as Orioles, but they’re so elegant. I just love them. They’re more reclusive than many other birds, so getting one onto your deck is kind of neat. Once they decide that they’ve found a safe source of food, they get kind of greedy and you’ll find yourself refilling the jelly dish more often. They also have an unusual call which you’ll come to recognize.

Aside from jelly you can also put out orange halves or buy feeders which take nectars for Orioles, Catbirds and the like. But grape jelly is much cheaper and works very well so I’ve never bothered.

You can watch the migration of Orioles and other migrating birds and insects here. That link is to the Journey North website which tracks signs of spring moving northward. It also has an easy form to fill out to report when various signs of spring show up in your neck of the woods, which can be a neat activity for your kids to participate in.

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