Sunday, October 4, 2015

And then there were four...

In "Switchbacks to the Top," I talked about how our homeschool journey has been anything but a straight line. Two weeks ago, our path hit a decisive fork in the road.

Deciding last spring to leave the private school they had attended for two years and bring our girls back home was a pretty simple, straightforward choice. Our boys were another matter. My husband had a very social high school experience, one remembered more for the conviviality of band and theater than for its academic rigor. Despite a decidedly less than stellar secondary education, my husband not only attended college but went on to earn a graduate degree and successfully provide for our family. My background was very different. My father is an academic who believes very strongly in the importance of a rigorous education. My mother, a farm girl from a poor family that depended upon the labor of their children to run their dairy, received a very inadequate education in her youth and worked hard to graduate from college in middle age. The combination of my parents' views resulted in a home were education was not only valued, but a source of camaraderie and enjoyment.

Given our different viewpoints on secondary education, the choice of an academically sub-par public high school or our homeschool was a difficult one. My husband felt strongly that education is what you make of it and that if the boys took what they were offered and maximized their learning, they could still receive an adequate education while also experiencing all the positive social aspects of public high school. Since our boys are solid young men, well-grounded in their value system and faith and surrounded by quality friends, neither of us were too concerned about the influences of the more concerning population of the school.

While I agreed with my husband about the social influences, I was not at all impressed by the academic rigor of the program. My concern was the lack of a laudable curriculum and the fact that the teaching model used in the vast majority of classes was one which used many methods I find both tedious and ineffective. However, I agreed to let the boys take the helm of their education and make their own choice. 

In the end, like most parents, my husband and I reached a compromise. Carter was vehemently opposed to attending the local high school, and his twin brother, Quinn, was very excited about the prospect. We all agreed that they would both give it an honest try and that we would re-evaluate the choice either at semester or the end of the year. What ensued in the following month was surprising for all of us.

Of the two, Quinn is the quiet academic and the social butterfly. Carter takes his studies very seriously and puts a great deal of stress upon himself to do well. Given those facts, I thought that Quinn would take what education came his way and thrive in the social high school atmosphere. Instead, he was the first to become disenchanted with what the school offered, and his reasons were sound. Quinn said that the teachers "yammered at" the class for fifty minutes about things that he "either already knew, could grasp in half the time reading for himself, or couldn't care less about" and rattled off the homework assignment as the bell rang. In short, he was bored, uninspired, and felt like his class time was being wasted, only to have his evenings filled with busy work.

Carter found the work to be lamentable in its lack of academic merit. Both boys were registered in a special program called the World Discovery Seminar. We chose the program for its similarity to the model of teaching that both I and their school of the last two years used. Instead of teaching to a test, as honors and AP classes do, the boys and I felt that the model of collaborative projects, primary source materials, and discussion would be a better fit for both boys. It sounded good in theory, but the reality was far below expectations. As one example of something the boys complained about: they were given portions (not complete) of primary source documents and writings to study. One of the things they were told to do--one of the few generally useful things--in the course of perhaps the silliest method of analysis I have ever seen, was to annotate any vocabulary with which they were unfamiliar. Neither boy found a single word, in a month of school, that they didn't know. I believe them, because I read some of the pieces. Carter kept getting marked down for not highlighting any words; Quinn just picked a few so the teacher would get off his back. Eventually, Carter took a picture of the running vocabulary list that I keep on our white board, defining words from the girls' read-aloud, to show his teacher that his third and sixth grade sisters' vocabulary far exceeded anything in his assignment.

The abysmal standards to which their writing assignments were held--Carter turned in one quickly written paper in science, worried that he would be lucky to get a "C," only to be appalled that it actually earned him an "A"--was a constant source of frustration for both boys. Coming from strong writing backgrounds, and holding themselves to high standards of performance and their teachers to high standards of expectation, they were repeatedly shocked by what was deemed perfectly acceptable.

Both young men quickly came to the same conclusion. Making the most of what you were offered was one thing, but what about when no one was offering anything that even remotely pushed the boundaries of what you already know? How do you improve your vocabulary when the words aren't new? How do you grow as a researcher and writer when work that you do not feel proud of earns you the highest grade in the class and no suggestions for further development? Why is a textbook, with its dull prose and surface knowledge questions at the end of each section, seen as an acceptable way to teach science and history? What good does it do to learn about the beliefs and practices of people and societies in the past if you never coexist with their ideas and philosophies, processing them in relation to your own tenets?

Perhaps the most disturbing element in this whole scenario is the fact that neither of our boys would be classed as academically gifted. They both work very hard for a "B," celebrate an "A," and settle for the odd "C" now and then. The only thing that sets them apart from their peers is that for their first seven years in our homeschool and the two years they spent at private school, they learned that they could be more, do more, experience learning at a different level. They know that even the best student still has more to learn and it is a teacher's job to mentor them towards even greater accomplishments.

And so they chose to come home. Home to the mother who, while I celebrate their achievements, also knows that every paper can be elevated to the next level, every discussion can go deeper, and personal research will trump a textbook every time. They want to be challenged, to feel like their ideas have value, and to understand why their assignments are relevant to who they are and who they are becoming. They need an environment where critical thinking, not just the ability to put the textbook's key points--and other's ideas--into the correct blanks, is fostered.

We welcome the chance to grow and learn together in our homeschool that is now twice the size it was when we all optimistically launched our various academic efforts six weeks ago. Major changes are in the wind for the girls, as we merge their pursuit of knowledge with that of their brothers. We are letting go of some of the elements of our curriculum that have been a mainstay in past years, in favor of new materials that we are opting to explore.

In the coming year, we look forward to sharing our journey, with all its switchbacks, with all of you. Good and bad, we hope that our stories, projects, reviews, and experiences enrich your homeschool, too. If you don't homeschool, we hope you enjoy following us along the trail and learning how education happens for one family who embraces whole books, Socratic Method, and collaboration with other homeschoolers.

BUILDING THE MACHINE - The Common Core Documentary

As homeschool parents, we are very fortunate in that the vast majority of states do not require us to teach to a specific set of standards. Even in Alaska, where we are lucky enough to receive funding for our home schools, we do not have to commit to someone else's set of state standards. When I put together the Individualized Learning Plan for each of my children, I am asked for each subject area if I will teach the state's standards (and if so, check this handy little box here), or if I choose to teach my own set of skills (and if so, please list in the box below those topics and academic goals you will cover). Isn't it interesting that parents of publicly educated children do not have the same choice? Alaskan schools, like those in 44 other states, have adopted Common Core, and they adopted it without due public notice and without a vote by the people. As a homeschooler, I can choose. You cannot.

So why does this detail matter? It matters because I can tailor those topics, skills, and goals to match my children's academic needs in a given moment, without regard to what grade they are in and what they should be learning--whether below, at, or above the standard mean. I can also take into account their individual goals and passions. If public school teachers were given this same opportunity, to tailor what they taught to what their current group of students need and want, your children would receive a much richer academic experience.

Why, as a homeschooler, do I care about Common Core when I am lucky enough to have children who are not going to be affected by it in their K-12 schooling? Because it will affect their college experience. One of the lesser known facts about Common Core is that state universities located in Common Core adopting states, in accepting funding through the initiative, have pledged that any student who has taken a college preparatory course in high school will not be placed in a remedial course upon college entry--they must be placed in a credit awarding course. In an academic climate where 60% of freshman who have taken these so-called preparatory classes end up taking at least one remedial course, there can only be one end result. The standards of the courses will drop in order to meet the students where they are truly at. Those children lucky enough to be educated to a higher standard in secondary school will be funneled into these same dumbed-down general education classes with their peers. 

Every parent makes their own education choices for their children. Homeschooling is not the chosen path for most, for a variety of reasons. Whatever you have chosen for your children, I encourage you to watch the video below. Building the Machine gives some interesting background information about the genesis of Common Core, some of the controversy, and why it matters. This video was produced by a legal organization committed to helping homeschool parents stay current on education legislation that affects all children, not just those who are educated at home, and defending against the encroachment of the federal government and other financial entities into the education of our nation's youth. It basically comes down to one question. Who do you want making critical decisions about your children's education--Washington? Or you?