Lofty goals…

August 26th, 2009 § 1

So I’ve been thinking a lot about how to approach this year of homeschooling, from style, curriculum and schedule standpoints. As the parent and teacher here, I’m faced with unlimited possibilities – a wonderfully freeing and yet slightly overwhelming thing. Going in, I knew there were a number of things I wanted to address, including giving Alli as much freedom and responsibility as I feel she is able to handle. I also knew that I would fall very much in the middle spectrum of homeschool styles, being neither an unschooler nor the traditional school at home type. I feel really strongly about being flexible, and giving Alli some freedom to pursue things in ways that are engaging and meaningful to her. That said, I also feel responsibility for helping to facilitate and oversee things to ensure that there is something meaningful going on, as well as to provide balance in the kinds of learning opportunities that are available to her. Because I don’t know whether at some point in the near or distant future she or we will elect for her to re-enter the school ‘system’, I also feel aware of the learning standards embraced by that system, and want to be mindful that she wouldn’t face a huge adjustment period if that were a road we were to travel again. Other considerations include giving her lots of collaborative learning and social time with others, valuing physical and artistic learning and practice as much as traditional academics, integrating learning experiences across disciplines wherever possible, and being actively involved in the world around us. I am also striving to create balance for myself, ensuring that I am also engaged in and energized by the learning activities we pursue together, building in time for myself to pursue the things I want and need to do, and aiming to minimize the dreaded “after school activity shuffle”, where there’s no time for playdates with friends in school, little to no opportunity for unscheduled downtime for either of us, or where our ‘family time’ (when Andrew is home from work) is substantially encroached on.

No small task, trying to build a plan around all of these goals. I’ve been told by many experienced homeschoolers that they started with a schedule that they ultimately tossed out of the window. That may happen to us, and I envision it being quite fungible – as to me, one of the big advantages of home schooling is being free to do what works at any given time – as well as being able to drop other plans to pursue something meaningful that is really engaging a child. Still, my aging brain does better at managing time when it’s at least roughed out, and I was reminded when collaborating with Alli about plans that she too was expecting a schedule, in part I think because she’s used to that as part of ‘schooling’, and in part because she, like most kids her age, feels more comfortable when she knows what to expect of her day.

So, we’re at least starting out with a schedule as our ‘moveable’ target (click image to enlarge):

2009 Fall HS Schedule Draft

Some of my thoughts/plans in re: the schedule/curriculum:

Math: This is a a big area of strength and interest for Alli (and fortunately me as well). In addition to integrating math skills with projects where it naturally fits, we will have some structured math learning. Our local district uses the U of C Everyday Math program. I don’t think this is great for all kids, but I do think it will match Alli’s learning style. Because it’s structured a little differently than traditional math programs, we’ll use it as a starting point for our math work – so she’ll have exposure. We’ll add to this with other hands-on math activities and projects, teachable moments in everyday stuff, lots of problem-solving, and a math games sessions that I’m organizing and facilitating for a small group of other h-s kids.

Language Arts: This is really the most natural area for integrated learning. Reading and writing will be a part of our approach in learning (and demonstrating learning) about everything. In addition, there will be some focused time spent reading and writing. My aim for reading will be exposure to a balance – including classics, fiction, nonfiction, and content area stuff, with a variety of ways of processing what is read – through discussion, writing, and more creative venues (I’m thinking podcasts, performance art, etc). We’re also going to be a part of a mother/daughter book group run by another homeschool family, and I hope to either participate in or create our own literature circles with peers. Writing we’ll pursue also through integrated projects, but we’ll do regular journaling/blogging/editing activities too, and have a little “writing workshop” to work through the drafting, editing, revising, and publishing cycles. Traditional grammar and spelling are out the window in favor of integrating both into our reading and writing work – these aren’t areas of challenge for Alli, and I feel we can address them organically through the rest of our work, and particularly through the editing process. Alli has already started creating her own spelling journal, where she maintains and practices her own lists from words she encounters through reading and writing, or ‘challenge’ words she finds in the dictionary, and she’s interested in developing her cursive writing more as well.

Social Sciences: I love the idea of embracing the social sciences in hands-on and holistic ways. Instead of using prepackaged history or geography curricula, I’m hopeful that we can embrace all of the elements of culture – including history, geography, economics, arts…. — through literature (primary sources when available) and direct experiences as much as possible – capitalizing on the many resources available in the Chicago area. I’ve found some fun books that address history in more unconventional ways, and I’m hoping we can use those as a springboard to find slices that are of interest to Alli that we can explore further. I think it will be interesting to explore history with lenses that aim to filter cultural bias as well as examine human rights and social justice issues. We’ve just started to tap into an International Pen Pal group, which connects the kids to Peace Corps volunteers across the world. We’ll also aim to learn about current local and world happenings through a variety of both kid and adult news sources.

Science: Our emphasis in science will be learning about and applying scientific methods of gaining new knowledge and learning about how things work. Science topics work wonderfully as thematic, integrated studies, so we’ll embrace a lot of this in our learning block and field trip time (and I imagine our garden plot will continue to be a wonderful place for learning and more of Alli’s “experiments”). Alli’s an animal-lover, so I intend to support her never-ending quest for more animal knowledge and experience – in fact she’ll be volunteering at the local ecology center to help care for the many abandoned or injured animals they take in. She’s also expressed interest in physics and outer space that we’ll explore more. I hope to facilitate many experiment-filled projects along with visits to some of the wonderful museums and science centers in the area. This fall, she’ll be taking a science class at a local nature center with other homeschoolers, and our learning will be bolstered by this year’s curriculum in her classes at our Unitarian church, which is focused on Earth-centered stories and nature.

Arts: I’m reasonably crafty, and we pursue those kinds of things regularly, but I don’t have a lot of background in art or art history, so I viewed this as an area that I’d need to do a lot of learning alongside Alli – something I’m happy to do. This fall, though, I’m getting some help from a local artist (also a home schooling parent) who offers art classes to the h-s community – Alli’s first class will study several artists, culminating in the students’ production of a miniature art gallery of their own, bearing miniature examples they create representing the artists’ style of work. Alli will also be taking an acting class from another h-s parent who runs a little theater company (we saw one of their productions in the late spring last year, and it was very cool!). Alli will be continuing piano classes as well as participation in an area children’s choir, and we’re pondering venturing into some guitar lessons for us both maybe after we get some more of the year under our belts. Of course, we’ll be visiting museums and keeping our eyes open for the many cultural art opportunities in the area. I have a kids’ photography class on my “would love to organize” list too, which I think I’ll hold off on until we get rolling for a bit.

Physical: As I have had to turn down her requests for more athletic classes or teams than our schedule could possibly ever permit, Alli’s daily life is generally already very full with physical activity. I do intend, though, for both of our health, to build in regular exercise to every day – be it walking, biking, swimming, or yoga. In addition, Alli will be continuing with modern dance, softball and [fall and spring] soccer during the school year, and we’ve found a weekly home school swim lesson and gym class at our local Y. She’s been taking a basketball class with a small group of h-s kids this month that we’re hoping will continue through the fall, and we’ve been going to a weekly park meetup as well, that should continue until the winter weather forces it indoors.

Language: Many folks have asked me if I’m going to be teaching Alli German. Before she was born, I did consider trying to raise her bilingual from birth, but the reality was that I was feeling too lazy and maybe a little too distanced from the language in my post-collegiate years to put forth the kind of effort that would take (namely, speaking mainly German with her for most of her early life). She has had some exposure to Spanish already in her years at school, and frankly, it’s a much more practical language for her to learn right now, so we’ll be sticking with that. I may add some German in at some point if she shows interest. As my one semester of college Spanish 20 years ago isn’t going to take her very far, and as she seems to really enjoy and respond to computer-based learning, we’re giving the much-endorsed Rosetta Stone program a shot. So far, I’m reasonably impressed with its immersion-style natural learning (versus translation) approach, and particularly impressed with its speech recognition component. I am hoping that we can ultimately connect with some of her peers for some conversational sessions, and anticipate bringing some Spanish-language books/movies into the mix.

Technology: This is kind of a no-brainer in the Bernstein household. I probably don’t need to say too much more, except that I intend to take full advantage of both our resources and Alli’s interest and aptitude to use technology as a tool for learning, and for demonstrating learning in creative ways.

Community Service: When we first entertained the idea of home schooling, one of my first thoughts was that I’d really like to build a service element into our time. We have found one great volunteer opportunity so far (the ecology center one I described earlier), I hope to continue taking part in many of the opportunitites for service through the Unitarian church, and I have my sights set on founding a Roots and Shoots chapter at some point in the future (another one added to the “after we get rolling for a while” list). I have been thinking too about maybe checking with one of the area food pantries or retirement communities to see what we might be able to do there on some regular basis as well.

Assessment/Measurement/Documentation: While I can’t say we won’t ever do little assessments along the way, most of our measurement for the year will be informal – I intend to keep a journal documenting our work and my assessment of her development, and we’ll also be compiling a portfolio of work products. My disdain for standardized testing aside, I happen to have a child who doesn’t seem too bothered by tests – still, though, I’ve already noticed the impact they have on her motivation. I’m hopeful that a de-emphasis on testing will help to emphasize learning for joy and learning’s sake, will lower her overall stress and anxiety levels, and will allow her to take time to REALLY learn things, rather than always rushing to “win the race” or get the “best grade”.

So it’s a lot. I’m not entering into this in denial of the huge responsibility we’re undertaking. Despite the fact that I feel very engaged and energized by all of it, there are moments where I feel overwhelmed, and I think, “Can we really do all of this? Can we really do ANY of this? What have I gotten myself into? What have I gotten Alli into?”. But I think back to her experience over the last 2 years and how she’s been under-served in school, and I reflect on what we’ve already accomplished just by dabbling in homeschooling this summer, and the potential that we have to give her even if we only meet half of what I’ve set out to do still feels huge. I may need to be reminded of this every now and then…

Btw, I realize this is an enormous post. I don’t intend to write diatribes throughout this experience – there was just a lot of thinking that I wanted to have ‘on paper’ for my own documentation and reference, and maybe also to be able to refer folks to if they were concerned or curious about what in the heck we would be doing with our time…

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