Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Interest Driven Homeschooling...

In conversations with homeschoolers, also with non-homeschoolers and conventional educators, I often find myself talking about "degrees of interest driven education." I say things like:

All teachers try to discover and harness students natural interests as part of engaging them in the learning process. Of course, they do it to greater or lesser degree. Most teachers of language arts will give students a choice of what they should read or write about. etc etc And then I'll build a hierarchy of levels of student choice culminating in my using the word "Unschooling."

Unschooling has the nice shock value of reviving people's fears of losing control and of anarchy. For those who work in schools, it has a particular sting.  But then we get to the question of how much ownership of learning can be passed to the students?  Will elementary,middle, and high school students all be able to handle the same level of ownership of their learning? Is the motivation wildly different.

Here's the part that amuse me. I've been talking a great deal about VocabularySpellingCity lately (disclosure, I am commercially motivated to talk about and promote VocabSpellingCity but even if I wasn't, I probably would since it is a deceptively simple but advanced piece of work) and much of these conversations about student interest driven education has to do with abandoning traditional reading curriculum, the basal readers, and replacing them with a combination of more authentic reading and writing and teacher created learning materials.  I use VocabularySpellingCity as an example of how easy it is for teacher's to take ownership of responding to students' interests and needs.  examples:

Most students run into new vocabulary that they need to learn. With a Premium VocabularySpellingCity membership, parents or teachers can give students the ability to create their own lists that they can then attach to 35+ learning activities or games.  The students then are creating their own vocabulary to master, picking their own activities to practice the words with, and setting up their own measures of mastery, all supported by powerful tools for that purpose.

Of course, students are often ready to accept suggestions of words. VocabSpellingCity now has grade level vocabulary and spelling word lists for students to pick.

Kindergarten Word Lists 
1st Grade Word Lists
  2nd Grade Word Lists
  3rd Grade Word Lists 
4th Grade Word Lists
  5th Grade Word Lists 
6th Grade Word Lists
  7th Grade Word Lists
8th Grade Word Lists 
High School Word Lists

Each of these grade level pages has vocabulay words, multiple meaning words, sound alike words, spelling words, phonics word lists, math vocabulary, and other academic domain knowledge...

Saturday, May 03, 2014

More Common Core Discussion

I just read a blog about homeschooling and the Common Core that asks the question:

 "Is math, arithmetic, probability, and algebra something that should change from state to state? Of course not.  It’s pretty standard."  
Common Core Educational Standards

I totally agree. This business of state independence on standards gets a lot of people all worked up but realistically, does the state of North Carolina (for instance) really have the resources to develop new math standards?  Why shouldn't they adopt the same math standards as South Carolina or Oregon? Do they think they have any special insight into the needs of their students for math skills in the 21st Century?  

If every state developed their own road signs or their own standards for car design safety, we could easily damage the US economy to the detriment of US consumers and businesses.  But business would not standard for it.  But, without business weighing in, we risk really screwing up the educaitonal system if every state decides to do something independent.  So far, the states have acted in unison with forty something of them agreeing to first develop and then to adopt a Common Core of Standards.  Now however, it has become politicized and it's possible that in pandering to the extremists and their rhetoric, we'll end up losing all the benefits of high quality uniform standards.

Any state that drops out and decides to go it alone will do so at their own risk.  Even Texas, for all their rhetoric, has always adopted standards that are different from the other states in name only.  But, this is the first time that it's become such a political football so I'm worried....

An important thing to remember is that each school or district is free to implement the standards with any curriculum or materials that they would like. The schools are free to choose their own literature to read, essays to write, problems for math solve, and films to watch.  A set of standards includes lists of "exemplary readings" but they are just there to illustrate the type of literature, the schools or districts are under no obligation to use them.  The choice of curriculum is left to the states and schools, it's only what the student outcomes or learning is supposed to achieve that is defined by CC standards.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Pros & Cons of Common Core Standards

Rather than pursue my discussion of the history of the Common Core, I thought I'd jump to a question that I'm very interested in:

What are the pros and the cons of the Common Core Standards?  They seem to have become so politicized that I haven't seen any real evaluations of the pros and cons. So I'll  start it off, feel free to join in. I'll start today with the language arts side.

The language arts standards shifts from the heavy traditional focus on literature to a more balanced approach with 50 of the reading being of non-fiction, 50% of fiction. While many English teachers are up in arms about this, most of us agree that we should have a workforce with more modern skills in media and are willing to give up a bit in terms of their ability to analyze a book's theme or a poem's  rhyme pattern.  In terms of critical thinking and analysis of non-fiction, students are being taught to focus on what the purpose of a document is, who wrote it, and is it clear or convincing and why?

In terms of writing, this  spells the end of the five paragraph academic essay. Instead, students are given more real world assignments like writing a persuasive blog article, a memo about what strategy the company should take, or a piece with instructions on how to accomplish a given task.

In terms of reading comprehension, the shift is away from "what did the article say" to "what was the article intended to do?"


This is interesting. I can't think of a single problem with the standards for language arts. I decided to do some web reading and googles "NGSS Pros & Cons."  I read the top entries for cons and none of them complained about the standards themselves.  They talk about:
 tremendously difficult adjustment for students and teachers
Common Core Standards will costs schools money to update the technology
The Common Core Standards are vague and broad
- "the Common Core standards effort is fundamentally flawed by the process with which they have been foisted upon the nation." - Diane Ravitch. She also addresses the fiction vs information text as: "The flap over fiction vs. informational text further undermined my confidence in the standards. There is no reason for national standards to tell teachers what percentage of their time should be devoted to literature or information. Both can develop the ability to think critically."

In fact, all of the common complaints about the language arts side of the common core focus on issues unrelated to the standards but based on the process and how the testing and data related to them will work.

 It's interesting since all of the standardized tests are going to be computer-based adaptive in the near future. All of the data will be used for data-driven differentiated learning. And the states that have tradtiionally created their own standards which are frankly substandard have all committed to switching to standards and tests that are more in tune with national and international norms.  Yet these complaints which are basically about the 21st Century are all being used to attack the NGSS. Guess what, beat down the NGSS and it will come right back under a new name. It's basically a collection of best practices melded with modern reality and the need to be competitive. For Florida, even if we stayed with the Sunshine Standards and FCAT, it would soon by revised to be less substandard and the delivery of the test would be updated  to be computer-based.


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Common Core Standards

I've been following the progress of the Common Core curriculum with some amazement over the last years.  Here's a quick summary.

Some people, apparently in Kentucky, feel that the usual process for the creation of standards should be replaced. Usually,  the Dept of Education (or some federal agency like the NSF)  gives grants to national groups to create exemplar sets of standards. Typically, these model standards are created by groups such as the National Council of Teachers of Math, or the National Association of  Teachers of Science etc NCTM, NATM, NSTA etc. Then each state reviews and accepts or modifies these standards per their own state approach. Massachusetts typically moves all the grades down a level, Learn that in 4th grade? Heck no, we'll do that in 3rd.  In contrast, it's said that Mississippi takes the opposite approach and then trims a little more to make it appropriate for their state.  Texas of course refuses to admit that they even look at the exemplars although of course their standards look suspiciously exactly like all the other state except they are called TEKs.

But, I digress. These peopkle from Kentucky,  talked to a sleepy group called the National Council of State Education Officers (CCSSO). While I'm not entirely sure, I'm pretty sure that this organization had never done anything significant before in it's history.

This group decided that they would set some exemplar standards.  Very ambitious. Fortunately, some foundations such as the Gates foundation quickly hooked up with them and provide deep deep grants for the effort.  A antional non profit educational foundation called Achieve was hired to do the actual work.... (More later, stay tuned....

Saturday, November 30, 2013


I haven't used a formal spelling curriculum with my two older kids because they're good spellers. I don't know if it's because they read a lot of books or spelling well comes natural to them. Our homeschool support group has Spelling Bees every year.  They can't participate in them anymore because they're high school now and too old for it, but they always enjoyed the Spelling Bees because they did well. Now with our youngest, we do practice spelling and do her spelling test online weekly.  Her spelling is also pretty good, but we use this spelling curriculum for comprehension also. Some of the games that she plays are matching definitions and sentence matching. These games help her with her reading comprehension. The handwriting worksheets help her to practice her handwriting while also practicing her spelling and vocabulary knowledge.
Our son has a tutor to help with his homeschool math.  Part of his math curriculum includes math vocabulary, which the tutor tests him on weekly. It's easy for him to focus on doing his math problems and yet forget to study his math vocabulary.  So we've been using SpellingCity to create our own math vocabulary list, which my son uses to practice before his math vocabulary test.  Once I've created the list, he uses it several times a week. Rather than studying the words on a piece of paper and just reading through it and testing himself, he plays math vocabulary games online. It's less monotonous and more fun.  
We like SpellingCity because they have a variety of games, they're fun and the webiste is very easy to navigate. While you can use the site for free, you can also purchase a premium membership for a very nominal fee and use it for up to five students.  My kids really do well with programs online.  What about your kids?  What works for your family? I'd love to hear your input. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Teaching Heat Energy

Wednesday is our science day.  We go to our local park with four other families. We have a total of ten kids. Sometimes we have more because we have visitors, and sometimes less because things come up, people get sick, or the weather doesn't cooperate.  Yesterday was a very rainy day. So we stayed home.  But we still had fun with some science projects.  It's easy to do science projects and experiments without being prepared when we have an online program.  Our topic yesterday was heat energy.  The lesson included video clips of heat transfer by conduction and radiation, followed by application questions.  We also saw examples of ways people can generate heat energy.  In addition, we talked about ways that heat energy can move from one place to another.  When we place a pot on the stove, heat moves from the hot burner to the cooler pot.
I created a list using the vocabulary that we covered in the science lesson: heat energy, conduction, conductor, contact, degree, insulator, radiate, radiation, temperature, thermometer, transfer, wave.  My daughter really enjoyed the vocabulary matching game.  She gets excited when she gets them right. She also likes to draw, so she drew a picture of mom cooking at the stove, showing the pot on the hot burner.  And then she wrote a short paragraph under the picture.  These are the types of things I like to include in her homeschool portfolio, her pictures and stories.  Every once in a while I like to take them out and look through them, watch the progress from year to year. My oldest is graduating this year and I'll be creating a scrapbook of all her school years. Her journals, essays, drawings and pictures will be the best part.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Homeschool Help

I enjoy visiting social web sites on the internet and looking for fun crafts or projects to do with my daughter.  Pinterest is one of my favorite sites for ideas for homeschooling. Actually, I like looking through it for all kinds of things. It's like creating my own magazines on different topics as I look at different magazines. I've found some great ideas for lapbooking.  We use lapbooks for every subject. Because my daughter has learning disabilities, creating lapbooks is additional practice for vocabulary words or math concepts.  Her homeschool curriculum is excellent at explaining the concepts. When she doesn't understand a concept and she answers incorrectly, the program explains it in a different way until she is able to understand it and answer correctly. The lapbooks or hands-on manipulatives that we use are just extra practice, which help to make the concepts or vocabulary words more concrete.

In addition to Pinterest, I like to visit blogs and social web sites, like Facebook. It's how I keep in touch with family and friends, especially the ones that live out of state.  I've joined several homeschool groups on Facebook which also keep me informed on curricula and other homeschool-related topics.  I don't know why, but it seems that at this time of year there are more families considering homeschooling.  A good number of these families want to pull their kids out of school during or after the holidays and are asking for homeschool help and curriculum.  It may seem unusual, but this is a good way to hear from homeschool families and their experiences with homeschooling and curriculum. The world of technology brings so much information to our fingertips. 

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Elementary Language Arts

The basics of an elementary homeschool should be the 3 R's, which are Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.  In our homeschool, these are the main things that we focus on getting done each day.  Of course we can add other subjects like history or social studies, science, geography once or twice a week.  In addition to that, we can also include field trips and dig deeper into topics that our kids are interested in. Science projects can also kick-start a burnt out homeschool, as I've mentioned before. But the main things that we use in the real world are reading, writing and arithmetic. So these are essential.

Language Arts for kindergarten and First grade means learning letter sounds and building words, the basics to learning to read. Sight words are also included, along with building the student's vocabulary. Capitalization and spelling can be added. For second and third grades we would consider reading fluency and reading comprehension. At this point we can also introduce basic punctuation and simple sentence construction. Fourth grade we cover antonyms, homophones, synonyms, suffixes, idioms and critical listening and speech skills. In fifth grade we would introduce the greek and latin roots, which helps to expand their vocabulary.  We make this more fun with some root word games. We also introduce classics in our reading materials and learn to paraphrase text. At this point we also begin to work on their expressive writing skills.

As you can see, Language Arts can cover several different skills. I've found that some curriculum will focus on certain aspects of Language Arts, while it may be lacking in other areas. At times we've had to supplement.  We build upon skills learned each year.
I'd be interested to hear what you do for language arts. What books are you reading this year?

Friday, November 01, 2013

Homeschool Activities

We live in South Florida where we have a large homeschool community. We have many homeschool support groups. We're members of two of these groups.  The homeschool community has grown tremendously in the last 10 years. When we started, our support group had park dates and special events for holidays. We had a Spelling Bee and Science Fair.  Now our homeschool groups offer drama clubs, yearbook committees, several different Bees like math, geography, spelling, and we still have the holiday events. We also have an event called Historically Speaking where our kids get an opportunity to speak about a historical character. And then there's Around the World.  Our kids do a study on a country and then share with the rest of the families present all they learned. They can use traditional dress from their country of choice. They can also bring money and food from the country they're speaking on.  Our yearly Thanksgiving event has grown to a Thanksgiving Feast with our kids performing different talents. This is in addition to our yearly talent show.

New homeschool families don't have to worry about their children missing out on anything. In addition to weekly field trips, there are plenty of opportunities for healthy socialization, for pursuing individual interests, and for co-op classes. There are also opportunities for healthy academic competition and a chance to participate in the activities I mentioned like the fairs, talent shows and Bees, including Debate and Public Speaking clubs. I mustn't forget other clubs like drama, dance, book clubs and yearbook or newsletter clubs. And then there are the athletic and band clubs. My kids have a homecoming dance this month. They'll also be going to the homeschool prom this year, since my oldest daughter is graduating homeschool high school.

Speaking of homeschooling high school.  I'm so glad that I have many homeschoolers before me who have paved the way and can help me with things such as homeschool transcripts. When we began considering homeschooling, I spent countless hours at the library and borrowed every book they had on homeschooling to educate myself on the subject. Today helpful homeschool resources are within reach via the internet.  So if you're considering homeschooling, take the plunge. I can tell you it's the best choice we've ever made for our family. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Enjoying Science

The holidays are coming upon us. Some of us will be taking breaks. Our family tries to take a break from Thanksgiving to the new year.  However, as homeschoolers, we never completely stop learning. And since we also have teenagers now, they can't always take time off from all of their subjects. So we may still do a little work here and there through the holiday season, or even learn through our daily activities.

There have been times that we've taken very short or no break at all, and I can tell you that between preparing for the holidays, having family visiting or visiting family, it was a recipe for burnout. When burnout has happened, a good anecdote has been taking a field trip, participating in community service or an event that is set up to serve others, like Operation Christmas Child.

Something my children enjoy and helps with the hum-drum of daily work is science experiments. Science experiments are a great way to get kids together of differing ages and incorporate some hands on learning, whether we homeschool preschool or are homeschooling high school. We invite my kids' friends over and can easily have kids ranging in ages from 5 on up to 17. The older ones help with the younger ones, and enjoy it just as much as the younger kids. It's easy to find simple experiments on the internet or at the library.

It's not always easy to plan ahead for science experiments; therefore science can sometimes become a subject that is not studied in depth, is studied through textbooks alone, or even skipped altogether.  A homeschool science curriculum is not only essential, but can make learning more enjoyable.  An online science curriculum can still provide the visual of a science experiment with online simulations and scientific processing skills, especially if we don't have the supplies needed for experiments. This is one way to ensure they're investigating, exploring, experimenting and learning to love science on a regular basis. Our students can be engaged in science experiments without mom and/or dad having to prepare lessons or gather supplies. Of course, there are times we can still do hands-on experiments, but these virtual experiments are engaging and thorough, and can include vocabulary activities, note-taking, worksheets and testing.

As I mentioned earlier, as homeschoolers we learn through everyday activities. Science can be brought into the kitchen as we prepare a meal or make edible science experiments such as an edible Graham cracker earthquake or phases of the moon with Oreos.
How about you?  What kind of creative or edible science experiments have you done?