The question: does your homeschool nurture or kill creativity?

I have an idea, and I need a small group of students
in grades 7 to 9 to help me make it a reality.

With my Weebly site, I have the capacity to add classrooms in which students build their own password-protected sites. Ideas abound in my head for how to use this tool with homeschoolers, but I need to flesh them out with real students. Do you have any around your house who are willing?

For this test group, I would like to gather students who
  1. want to build a simple Weebly site.
  2. are willing to participate in a writing community by posting their pieces for review, and commenting on pieces posted by other students.
  3. are flexible and patient, willing to experiment as we seek to figure out what will work best in this forum.

Clearly I will benefit, but students will benefit as well.
  1. They will diffuse the winter blues with a unique project.
  2. They will have a place to display their creativity as they build a site and share their writing.
  3. They will be a part of a small community of students wanting to grow as writers.
  4. They will have a real audience for their writing, giving them purpose for the process.
  5. They will have a qualified teacher giving them guidance and feedback.

The commitment is short: four weeks, from January 6-31, 2014.

It is inexpensive: $35 for the month.

The workload is reasonable. Students will set up a simple site with a Home page and an About Me page. They will go through the writing process for a minimum of two pieces, submitting their drafts by specified deadlines so that their peers and I can give them suggestions for revision. They will also offer revision comments to their peers. Other assignments may be added to make the experience as beneficial as possible, although they will be completed as the student desires.

Space is limited to ten students.

Registration deadline is December 18. Register here.
When students transition to junior high and high school and begin taking classes with teachers outside the home, Moms transition, too. No longer do we decide the curriculum or set  the expectations. We relinquish that control, so our children can learn from experts passionate about their subjects.

Initially, it seems glorious. We don’t need to plan any lessons, grade any assignments, or coerce our child to meet any deadlines. We happily place that responsibility in the lap of another.

But we soon realize that the teacher is not a clone of us. "Wait a minute," we might say, "her standard is higher than we’re used to."  Or we might think: “I expected him to be more creative.”  Or “Hey, she isn’t encouraging my son enough.” Or. Or. Or.

I’ve experienced both sides: I’ve been the mom and the teacher.

Here are some of my thoughts:

       * Expect a learning curve the first month or two. It takes time to adjust to a new teacher’s expectations and style. Don’t panic. It’s okay for students to experience some hiccups as they adjust.

        *When someone else is shouldering the responsibility of teaching, you can stand on the sidelines to encourage when necessary and help when asked.

        *If an expectation is unclear, encourage your student to ask questions, communicating directly with the teacher. It is not your class; it’s your child’s.

        *When a teacher grades a paper, accept the grade. Even if it is lower than you like, it is a growing opportunity for your child.  If it needs more discussion with the teacher, allow your child to initiate the conversation.

        *Trials are part of life. When we face difficult circumstances, we can grow. Don’t rob your child of this chance to mature by stepping in prematurely or inappropriately.

        *Don’t expect teachers to encourage your child as you do. They are serving more kids than yours.

        *The class may not look exactly like you want it to look. That’s okay. It’s beneficial for your child to experience something different from what he gets at home.

        *Don’t offer excuses for your child. It’s good for her to take responsibility for her actions and choices.

        *Trust the teacher.

If you tend to be a helicopter mom who hovers over your children or a fire fighter mom who wants to rescue them from the flames of trial, recognize your tendency. Resist writing that e-mail or making that phone call. Wait. Watch. Encourage. At the end of the class, you’ll likely have a student who has adapted to another person’s style, learning despite that person’s weaknesses, stirred by his/her strengths, and prepared for the next challenge in line.

...I will never be able to teach anything to anyone as well as they will be able to teach it to themselves if given the opportunity. So maybe that's what the definition of teacher should be: someone who makes learning possible, which often means simply preparing the ground for you to teach yourself" (Mali, What Teachers Make, 88).

Teachers have a real temptation to resist. At least I do. With kids, I like to be on stage, in charge, needed. I want to be the one who asks all of the questions, who already knows the answers, and who initiates the assignments. I like to play school. And I kind of, sort of like to be in control. So the temptation is to insert myself into the hub of the learning circle.

Can you relate?

The problem with the teacher being at the center is that the students aren't, and they are the ones who should be.  We need to purposely get out of the way, staying on the periphery to coach and encourage, and allow students to be their own teachers.

What are some ways to do this at home, to "prepare the ground," particularly when students are in elementary school?

Create a rich learning environment.
Books, instruments, paper, art supplies, maps, dry erase boards, manipulatives, games, craft and sewing supplies, balls, creative toys (i.e. Legos, K'nex, Zome Tools), puzzles...make sure they're available and accessible. Your home may never be featured on the cover of a  magazine, but at least your children will have plenty to keep their minds and hands busy.

View the world as your student's classroom.
Your students don't have to read and write to have a valid learning experience. You can encourage learning by visiting museums, historical re-enactments, concerts, performances, demonstrations, parks, and exhibits. Even a trip to the grocery store or bank can be educational. Be a willing taxi driver, and remember to talk (and listen) to your passengers. The trip is valuable learning time as you enjoy conversation together. Who knows what learning trail will be forged as a result of the trip!

Focus on the process.
Every product may not be all you hoped, but valuable learning occurs throughout the process. Value it; don't short-circuit it, especially if you're glued to an agenda. Realize that mistakes are part of the process, and we all know that mistakes can be our best opportunities for learning.

Visit the library regularly.
Let students explore the library, finding what interests them. If they migrate to the same series every time, nudge them toward something new. Or send them on a scavenger hunt of the library, so they can see the broader collection. Or host a book club, inviting each participant to advertise a favorite book in a particular genre.

Out of sight can be out of mind, so pull out a book or something else from the list on the left and place it strategically on the coffee table, on the arm of the couch, on the back of the toilet, somewhere it will be noticed, picked up, and enjoyed.  I used to be a shameless strewer, getting even my husband to read something I purposely littered in the living room. (Okay, maybe it's a bit manipulative, but librarians do it, too, you know.)

Get out of the way.
Remember that your kids aren't you. One of the ways I learned this lesson was in sewing. If I need to sew an article of clothing, I buy a pattern and follow it meticulously. When two of my daughters decide to sew, they envision what they want in their heads and work to unveil the vision.  I can marvel quietly at their skill now, but on their first attempts, admonitions longed to bust out of my mouth: "You can't do that; you need a pattern." I had to muzzle my mouth as I reminded myself that just because I need a pattern doesn't mean they need one. They aren't me!

Make suggestions.
I like to cast my line of suggestions or ideas and see which daughter takes my bait. I must admit, though, it worked tons better when my girls were in elementary school. My ideas don't generate the same level of enthusiasm anymore. (But I can still try. : D)

Allow for stewing.
You can contort yourself in multiple ways to explain a concept, but if the student isn't ready, she'll end up in tears, and you'll be hopelessly tangled. More often than not,  if you leave it and revisit it later, mysterious brain linkages will form, causing the longed-for light bulb to shine. Sometimes all students need is time.

Be a learner.
Whether you're on an errand or an adventure, with a book or a craft project, be open to learning and growing alongside your kids. You may already have your diploma and degree(s), but you've only dipped your toe in the ocean of knowledge. Learning something new will give you empathy when you're tempted to push, and a hobby when you crave control.

What other ways do you "prepare the ground" in your home?
The goal in teaching language arts is to improve a student's ability to listen, speak, read, and write. Tucked in the fine print are skills which include at least the following:
  • Grammar
  • Vocabulary
  • Spelling

How do you ensure you cover these skills with your students?

One way is to buy a workbook, one for each skill, one for each kid, and assign pages. If they faithfully do a page or two a day in each book, they will likely advance to the next level by the end of the school year.

  • Mom and students know exactly what is required each day.

  • Boring!
  • It's easy to get bogged down with the habit of filling in paperwork, forgetting that there is an ultimate goal of learning!
  • Nothing is really required of the student, other than perseverance.
  • Students don't take pride in their work.
  • After all those pages are completed, what then? The books likely end up in the trash.

Maybe I'm biased, but those lists are painfully lopsided.

What is another approach to achieve the same goal?

How about learning the skills in context?

When my girls were little and many of their little friends were filling in their workbook pages, my girls were writing. Writing in portfolders. Writing in blank books. Writing stories. Writing journal entries. Writing. Writing. Writing.

They were also reading. Reading fiction. Reading non-fiction. Listening to me read fiction and non-fiction. Reading. Reading. Reading.

How did they learn spelling, vocabulary, and grammar? They learned these skills through reading and writing. As they read--and heard me read--quality literature, they absorbed new vocabulary, proper grammar, and correct spelling. As they wrote, they applied what they absorbed, refining their understanding on assignments in which they were personally invested. They learned early that writing is a process, that their first draft is rarely their last.

  • Students get to think.
  • Creativity can leak out in all directions.
  • They have final products they can celebrate and share with others.
  • They are motivated because they have a goal in view.
  • Because they are able to express themselves, they realize they are a vital part of the learning process.
  • The teacher can inspire a love of learning.
  • Students learn how to learn.
  • One assignment can serve a range of ages and abilities.
  • Supplies are simple and inexpensive: paper, pencils, and time, although a computer does make revisions easier.

  • Mom may have to think of or find ideas to spark creativity.
  • If students are used to filling in pages, they may initially resist having to think and create.
  • If Mom doesn't feel comfortable giving feedback, she may need a writing mentor to help her students.

Again, I may be biased, but I like that list better!

The moms of my girls' little friends feared a couple of things about ditching their workbooks: one was possible gaps; the other was standardized tests.

Through a methodical system, your students may be exposed to every jot and tittle of every skill, but when you isolate the skills from real life learning, do children actually know how to apply them? 

From what I have read and seen firsthand, the answer is usually no.  In my first classroom experience, my eighth graders came to me engorged from a steady diet of grammar instruction the prior year. I was happy because I could feed them something different. We could work on writing, incorporating grammar instruction as needed. What I quickly discovered was that, despite learning from an excellent teacher, not only did the kids still not understand or remember the grammar they had learned from her, they also didn't know how to write. Even in a traditional classroom setting, these kids had huge gaps.

And testing? At least in our case, my girls have always tested very high in language arts. Through consistent drafting, revising, and editing, they learned the nuts and bolts of the English language and were able to choose the best answer on the test most of the time.

I know writing is on the top or toward the top of most homeschooling moms' I'm-not-sure-I-can-do-that-well list. If that describes you, you're the one who is inspiring me to build this site post by post. I want to give you concrete writing ideas, tips, and resources to ensure you're covering the whole language arts package.

If you need a few workbooks for security, it's okay, but I encourage you to step out and give real reading and writing a whirl. Because it's fun, you may fear you're missing something, but let me assure you: you're nurturing thinkers, students who can confidently listen, speak, read, and write. With those tools, think of what your kids can accomplish!
I have a friend who seemingly never stops thinking of creative teaching ideas. Seriously, she is like a vending machine. Pop in a need, and out comes a lesson, a class, or a curriculum, all creative, motivating, and unique, covering different learning styles.

Her latest contribution to homeschooling moms and their children is Vacation Workstation...a Brain Playground. The idea is simple but brilliant. All you have to do is make a workstation from file folders and set your students loose to explore nature, play math games, and read books. They keep track of their accomplishments with Bingo grids, a mini journal, and a log, taking away the headache of monitoring multiple children.

This is an excellent way to build a little structure into your kids' summer and keep their skills from rusting. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: I receive nothing in return for my review, other than the pleasure of knowing others are benefiting from an excellent teacher.
Flashback post from March 2008

I checked a book out of the library on Thursday that has me intrigued. It's called Mindset. In its 239 pages, Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. presents two mindsets out of which people operate, and many examples from her research to illustrate these two mindsets. The fixed mindset and the growth mindset are very different and can, Dweck claims, make a huge difference in how we approach life.

Where do you primarily see your own mindset?

Fixed mindset Traits:

*Abilities need to be proven
*Failure = setback = not smart or talented
*Belief that intelligence is fixed/can't be changed
*Fear of deficiencies being exposed
*Enjoyment of things safely within their grasp
*Loss of enjoyment if something is too challenging
*Expectation that an ability shows up on its own (i.e. it's natural) before any learning takes place
*Belief that one test/evaluation can measure them forever
*Prefer success over growth--desiring to prove they are special or superior
*Failure is not an action; it's an identity

Growth Mindset Traits:

*Love a challenge
*Abilities developed through learning
*Failure = not fulfilling potential
*Belief that they can change/develop their intelligence
*Thrive when they are stretched
*A test/evaluation can't project the future
*Belief that it takes time for potential to flower
*Failure is an action, not an identity
*Value the process regardless of the outcome

Throughout the vast majority of my life, I have definitely had a fixed mindset. As a youth, I was known as a perfectionist. Anything less than an "A" meant failure. I didn't take risks because I was afraid of failing. If anyone said I was good at anything, I could easily be puffed up and at the same time fear that I would be exposed as a phony. I wanted to be the best.

I talk about this as though it's past tense, but much of it lingers to this day. I thank the Lord, though, that He is truly changing me. He has yoked me with a growth-minded husband and surrounded me with growth-minded friends. Best of all, He is a growth-minded God who is committed to sanctifying His children that we may become more like Him and increasingly glorify Him.

Yes, this book is secular, but it's interesting to compare the two lists. (Context from the book is helpful, I'm sure.) One is the path of humility, one of pride. One needs the help of the Holy Spirit, one doesn't. One can be Christ-centered if the one is a believer. The other is me-centered.

I would enjoy discussing this book with a friend (or two or three), especially to ensure I am thinking biblically but also to help me (and hopefully you) continue to grow and to pass this gift to my (your) children. Any takers?
Flashback post from March 2008

Have you ever noticed that twisting sensation when your brain bumps into something new? I have. My body tenses; my eyes squinch; my brain begins its contortions. Sometimes I hear a voice say, "You can't." At other times, I hear one calling, "Keep trying."

Learning can hurt.

I've put in my years in the classroom, so I suppose I could coast now as I require my children to take up the mantle of learning. But why give up now? Don't I have all eternity to discover my infinite God and explore the Home He has prepared for His children?

Ah, yes, I must press on.

I've already mentioned the math class I'm taking. I worked ahead of the others, so the leader suggested working on Sudoku puzzles. "Ugh," was my first thought. Since we have a little book of the puzzles, I decided to give them a shot. The first two fit together magically. I don't know what happened with the third puzzle, but the magic was definitely missing. Do you know what happens when you make it through almost an entire puzzle, only to discover you have two 4's in a row with no remedy other than to erase the 4 you especially like? My brain does those twisty things and my poor eyes, which keep lobbying for bifocals, strain. No one stands over me insisting that I master Sudoku, but I can't quit. I want to figure out the proper homes for those annoying little numbers.

Today I took the girls to drawing class. I can't draw--or so I've insisted for most of my life. The teacher thinks otherwise. To help me jump the "I can't" hurdle, she told me to sit down and join the class today. Suddenly, the familiar symptoms returned. I wanted to quit. Then I looked around the table at the children doing their work with confidence, none of them older than twelve. I knew I had to persevere--at least for the hour. Besides, some of them know me as a teacher. Can a teacher declare, "I can't"?

Somehow along the way, maybe I am developing a bit of sympathy for my own children. I have one who turns angry at the sight of difficulty. Another lets the tears flow. The third would rather play. I correct. I encourage. My desire is that they find ways to deal with the pain of learning when it appears but not with their natural responses. When it's tempting to quit, we can learn a better way--the way of prayer, patience, and perseverance. And humility. Our inability points to the ability of Another Who is faithful to refine and help us.

Toward the end of drawing class today, I silently schemed to set my drawing aside and quit. Who would know or care? Then out of the mouth of the ten-year-old babe next to me came the words: "Don't give up."

Those words ring in my ears and urge me to press on.
Flashback post from March 2008

 It started with a math lesson today. Janessa and I read about binary numbers in a book by Theoni Pappas. We made sense of the explanation, and Janessa was able to respond to questions such as, "If 1011 is a base two number, how is it written in base 10?" No problem. Pappas claimed that any number can be represented with these 0's and 1's in the binary system. Since I've had almost no exposure to the binary number system, I was skeptical. I extended the lesson by suggesting a number which we needed to represent with 0's and 1's. Enter the problem.

I knew what I was asking of Janessa was within her reach. I also knew the process would require her to struggle. She wasn't interested in a struggle; she desired ease. At that point, she would have much preferred to mindlessly fill in a page of simple multiplication and addition problems. When I said I wanted her to struggle, she thought I had cursed her, and began to cry.

Fast forward to this afternoon. A local store is offering a savings of 50% on all of their games this week. The girls and I browsed the store, hoping for nothing more than a new deck of Dutch Blitz cards. With the cards in hand, I continued to look. I spotted Settlers of Catan, a game my friend recommended years ago. I hadn't purchased it for two reasons: it's expensive, and it looks daunting. The sale removed the first reason. But the second reason remained. This appeared to be a game which would require a lot of study prior to playing. Frankly, I wasn't interested in the struggle; I wanted ease. I showed it to the girls, though, and they were up for the challenge. Within an hour of opening it, we became the game's newest fans.

How do binary numbers and Settlers of Catan relate? In our little world, they both represented struggle. Both required effort. Both wrinkled our brains. At first. Once we pressed through, however, we experienced gain. Janessa's gain was unlocking the secret binary code and accomplishing something she thought impossible. Our group gain was learning a game we anticipate giving us many hours of fun family time.

It didn't take more than a moment of reflection to discover spiritual application as well. How I prefer ease in my life! I want a happy (tidy) family, a healthy savings account, a husband who leads flawlessly, friends who adore get the idea. It is when I have all these things, however, that I see very little growth in my relationship with the Lord. When trials come, even small ones like a child crying over her math, I am tested, refined, disciplined, humbled--all for God's good purpose of producing righteousness and steadfastness, a genuine faith and maturity in me. When life is easy, I forget my Lord and unwittingly place myself on His throne. Trials knock me down and impel me to seek my Savior.

In dependence upon my mighty Savior is where I want to be. It's where I need to be. Therefore, I welcome the struggle, knowing gain will be right around the corner.

See Hebrews 12:11; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-7.
Flashback post from June 2008

Almost daily I read what other moms and teachers write on the Living Math Forum, a Yahoo group I enjoy. The following quote snagged my attention.

"Sometimes I laugh to myself because my undergrad friends would say, 'You are SO smart.' Really, I was pretty dumb. I was like a rat in a maze--just do what you're taught, don't even think."

I was--am?--one of those rats in the maze. I learned the material presented to me for the sole purpose of earning an A (and all the benefits which accompanied it). Once I accomplished that, I turned the corner, sniffing around for my next one. Somehow I missed the reality outside the maze. My husband, who is one of the clearest thinkers I know, couldn't be bothered with a silly, old maze. He didn't play by the rules, as his GPAs reflected, but he knew how to think, and he knew how to communicate his thoughts.In the early days of my teaching career, I began a quest to learn how to teach outside the maze, to keep students from mindlessly meandering through the maze. My insights are shallow, my implementation is imperfect, and my learning is ongoing, but here is what has helped us thus far.

~We keep W. B. Yeats' wise words before us: "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire."

~We avoid workbooks and other rote memorization methods which can program a child to turn off her mind as she fills in the blanks.

~We fill the house with living books of all kinds to encourage reading. We avoid fluffy books which lack content, have a a controlled vocabulary, or include poor writing.

~We visit the library regularly.

~Writing for real purposes is vitally important. We have a large collection of the girls' own books, portfolders, and projects.

~We try to give the girls many and varied experiences to help them connect their learning to the world.

~We encourage creativity and decision-making.

~We try to teach skills in context rather than isolating them.

~We encourage the girls to set their own goals. We are here to help them learn in whatever ways we can, but their education is ultimately their responsibility.

~As they play, the girls re-enact what they've learned.

~The girls don't work for grades; they work for excellence.

~We talk together a lot.

~The girls observe our continuing desire to learn.

~We teach them how to learn, so they may continue to do so when they're no longer at home.

Marilyn Burns says in Math: Facing an American Phobia: "And to learn with understanding, students' curiosity about mathematics must be tapped, their thinking must be stimulated, and they have to be actively engaged in learning and doing mathematics. It's not okay to do anything less than that and call it education" (79). Burns is primarily focused on math, but the principle can be extended beyond math. Curiosity, stimulation, and active engagement are the breeding grounds for students to grow as thinkers, not in a contrived maze but in a big world where learning has no end.