Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Why Do You Homeschool?"

As I watch Grasshopper's friends head to kindergarten, it gives me pause to contemplate anew the answers to this question. For it is not the same as it was a year or two ago, or more.

Eliminating Wasted Time and Taking Advantage of Opportunities

My original interest in homeschooling centered around the wasted time and the opportunities that could be taken advantage of if that waste were eliminated. I thought primarily of the high school years, during which a young person could have a chance to be employed in jobs that were only available during the school hours. As much as I personally got out of my job working at Kentucky Fried Chicken for three years, it never looked good on a resume and was never valued in the world. But when I met a homeschooled 16yo working in a law office, I thought that was a much more beneficial experience.

An Opportunity to Work at a More Advanced Level

After I had Grasshopper, it became quickly clear that she was gifted. While she is not the kid that will be attending college at 10yo, she is certainly ahead of her age-peers. As we have discussed schooling options with her, she has asked about why she can't go to public school with the other children. We have responded that in kindergarten, they will be teaching such things as letters, counting and colors--things she has known now for three years. She didn't complain, and I suppose she simply accepted the explanation. But recently, I was contacted by a friend of mine whose daughter is the same age as Grasshopper and attending public kindergarten. She wanted to know what she could use to teach her daughter to read, because she was bored. Grasshopper questioned me about it and was impressed that what we had told her about kindergarten was true. Later, as we were talking about future plans and goals, she asked, "You aren't going to send me to school, are you!"

So this is why we homeschooled kindergarten last year. At 4yo, there is no way that any kindergarten would have accepted her. But I was not yet committed to always homeschooling, because after she was old enough to go to school, there always would be a chance that a school would be able to accommodate her giftedness. However, over this past year of learning about my daughter and her gifts, I have also learned that the chances of finding a school that would accommodate her is very slim, at least in the early years when she is learning how to write.

Accommodating Asynchrony

You see, most people believe that an advanced child is equally advanced in all areas. But while a child may be advanced in all areas, it is very rare to find one that is equally advanced in all of those areas. And it is actually quite common to find that a gifted child is deficient in some areas. Handwriting seems to be the most common area of concern. And this is easy to see, as handwriting requires a certain degree of physical development. It doesn't matter how well one understands how writing is to be done--it still requires a certain amount of experience and practice to do it correctly. So a gifted kindergartner may be reading Harry Potter and doing multiplication and division on his own. Yet he may be barely able to write his name or compose a simple card.

For this reason, simply accellerating a child in school may not be a sufficient accommodation. And that is certainly the case with Grasshopper. While I think that she is a little ahead of her age-peers in her handwriting, it is not by much. I have also noted that her attention span is not much more advanced that her friends'. She still learns a lot through pretend, an activity that you may not see as much in the curricula of higher grade levels.

So let's say I am actually able to convince a school to accellerate her to first grade for this school year. She does her math worksheets every day but eventually starts to complain. But she is a good kid and keeps on doing that work, though it takes her longer and longer each day. Then one day she asks to learn multiplication. Is there really any chance that the teacher will agree? I don't believe so. But this is exactly what happened last year. I gave her the multiplication book, and she spent the remainder of the school year doing multiplication instead of her kindergarten math. She was happy as a clam.

Meanwhile, I knew that she wasn't ready to just move on to third grade math. So I searched for a curriculum that would be more interesting for her, both in terms of offering higher level content, as well as manner of teaching. We started at a 1st grade level this year, and so far we both love it. I have to compact it a bit since some of the concepts taught (like counting), she knows solidly. But it includes an introduction to a lot of other math concepts that we are really enjoying, such as the commutative property, probability, and charts and graphs.

We have done essentially the same thing with our other subjects. A school teacher would be unable to do this, no matter how well-informed on the subject of giftedness. It is much easier for me to use my time and energy to find, implement and tweak the right curriculum to fit my daughter's needs than to spend my resources getting others to do so.

Developing a Love of Learning and a Solid Work Ethic

I admit that there is a part of me that thinks that a child has to learn to work within a system and to do what others do and what authorities demand. I did it, and you probably did, too. And most of the time, I was okay with it. In kindergarten, I circled the dog that was bigger, even though I thought it was a joke that we were even asked to do it. In third grade, I wrote those spelling words ten times each, even though I already knew how to spell them.

But when I really think about it, I can remember some problems. In first grade, my teacher asked my mother to have my hearing checked, because I wasn't doing my work. My hearing was fine. But because I was in a split class with second graders, I was doing the second grade work instead of my own. Perhaps I was so involved in it that I really did not hear my own assignments. Or maybe I chose not to do them. I don't remember. But it was a clear sign that I was bored and insufficiently challenged.

My resulting problems were minor at the time. But the result was that all of my work throughout all of my primary and secondary education was easy. I learned that education was easy and not worth working at. In high school, I didn't go to awards ceremonies or even my graduation, because I believed that I should not celebrate that which I did not work for. I do not want my children to feel this way about education. I want them to love to learn and be willing to work at it. I believe they will be much better off in the world if they do. And I don't believe that my particular children will learn it in a public school setting.


There are many that criticize homeschooling for its lack of socialization. I would contend, however, that any person is socialized simply by being around people, be they peers, teachers, siblings or parents. So the question is whether that socialization is the right kind. I suggest that the right kind of socialization is the kind that prepares a person to eventually be a responsible, healthy adult.

In order to determine the right kind of socialization for my own children, I first have my own socialization experiences to draw on. Throughout elementary school, I had just one friend. I was not interested in most of what the other kids were doing or playing, so I usually sat out. I craved in-depth conversation, and I couldn't bear the superficial conversations that other kids ordinarily had. If other kids had invited me to play, I might have participated more. But that sort of thing doesn't happen a lot in a school setting.

As an introvert, I would have been content to be alone most of the time. But I was easy prey for bullies. I harbored no bad feelings towards other children. I didn't understand why others would do and say things for the sole purpose of making a child cry. Yet it happened to me all the time. And because I thought that this meant that there was something wrong with me, I never told a soul. During my lifetime, although I have never questioned my intelligence, I have never really been able to rid my mind of those teasing, taunting voices. Whenever I plan to get together with a new friend, and plans get cancelled, I secretly wonder in the back recesses of my mind if they discovered what those kids from elementary school saw in me. I do talk myself out of it, and remind myself that I no longer live in that world. But the voices are always there, however faint.

I see all of those same characteristics in Grasshopper (hence her Internet name--a Kung Fu reference). I know that she would go to school, endure the teasing, cry in secret, and never tell a soul. And I am certain that she would grow up with those same voices telling her that there was something wrong with her. She is the most capable child that I know, academically, emotionally, socially. And I cannot bear the thought of a childhood of bullying erasing her knowledge and understanding of her gifts.

At no time in our adult lives are we grouped together based solely on age and geography. Yet so many people believe that this is what children need in order to become healthy adults. Right now, Grasshopper can play with children of any age and also engage adults in worthwhile conversations. But in school, playing with children in different classes is highly frowned upon. And heaven forbid if you openly enjoy the company of an adult! No, that is not the kind of socialization that I want for my children.

By the way, when I went to junior high and high school, that one friend of mine from elementary school started drinking, smoking and doing drugs. If friends had been more important to me, I could have followed suit and had many friends. But I declined and was left without friends for a while.

As a homeschooling parent, it will certainly mean more work for me to make sure my kids have friends. But it will be worth it if we can avoid the highly negative socialization that goes on in schools.

Family Bonding

A new friend of mine who was homeschooled as a teenager was recently recounting why her parents began homeschooling. They were concerned that each family member was doing his own thing, and their family was not operating as a unit. They wanted to foster love and unity in their family. As I listened to her story, I felt in my heart that this was also my reason to homeschool. My mother has a sister who will not talk to the rest of the family, and consequently, I haven't seen my cousins in over 10 years. My mother's brother moved to Florida and has not stayed in contact. I haven't seen my father's sister since my grandmother died about a decade ago. My sister will no longer speak to my mother. I believe that this scenario has become epidemic in our society, and I don't want it to happen to my family. My kids love each other and play so well together. In spite of the strong toddler urge to say, "Mine," and, "No," they share with each other and do not hoard their possessions.

Someone might contend that my kids are sheltered. But Grasshopper has three community classes per week, and is considered a model child. We formed a play group that meets once per week, and she has many, many friends. She easily and voluntarily invites new children into the group. She is appropriately wary of strangers, but she is quite comfortable and appropriate with those she knows. I have never had anyone who knows her suggest she needs any work in the area of socialization. For this reason and all the others stated above, I believe that we are on the right path for now.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Spell to Write and Read

Last year, I purchased Spelling Workout for Grasshopper on the advice of The Well-Trained Mind (TWTM), which cited it as the top-pick for spelling programs. As much as I love TWTM, I am afraid that following this particular suggestion left us looking for another program. I wanted to find a more strongly phonics-based program that we wouldn't have to alter to accommodate Grasshopper's age (5yo) and writing ability (about 5-6yo). (We ended up doing Spelling Workout orally. This would have been fine if she were learning something, but she was just memorizing the spelling words rather than learning how to spell.)

Because Grasshopper has a very interactive learning style, I was looking for something that we would be able to do together rather than an independent worksheet-type program. I had heard about learning spelling through dictation (Charlotte Mason style), and I started asking whether such a program existed. Well, as it turns out, we found Spell to Write and Read, which is not at all like what I originally was asking about. What drew me to this program was its strong emphasis on the rules of reading and spelling. (Grasshopper is very rule-oriented. If I don't teach her a rule, she will make one up. This goes for any situation.)

Spell to Write and Read (SWR) is just as its title says--children learn to write and to read by spelling first. I know it sounds backwards. But by teaching children 70 phonograms and 28 spelling rules, they can learn to spell, even if they are not reading yet. And doing so gives a new reader a solid phonics foundation. Now Grasshopper has already been reading for some time, so we are using it strictly as a spelling program. (Click here for a detailed description of SWR.)

We starting using SWR two weeks ago, and so far we are really enjoying it. Grasshopper is actually asking to do more spelling. As I have researched the program and prepared to teach it, I have come to believe that this method of teaching reading, writing and spelling concurrently is the best method. (However, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have little experience with other programs beyond a little research.) While there are many programs that teach the same 70 phonograms and 28 spelling rules, SWR appears to teach them more thoroughly, using a multi-sensory approach that suits any and all learning styles. The child learns the phonograms and spelling rules by seeing them (visual), saying them (auditory), and writing them (kinesthetic).

Another great feature of SWR is that in one Core Kit costing about $100, you get everything you need for all years of spelling that they will take. SWR is often compared to All About Spelling, which costs $250 for the same amount of teaching material.

Despite my excitement for SWR, I must warn that SWR is not for the faint of heart. Following is a list of difficulties that I have found with the program.
  1. SWR is very teacher-intensive. It requires planning ahead, dictating spelling words and playing games with your child. I can see that once we get into the program for a few weeks, it will be a little more open-and-go. But the upfront time investment is enormous. (I spent a couple of weeks just reading the book and another couple of weeks starting my own log before I started the program with Grasshopper.) For this reason, I would caution you against starting SWR when you are in the midst of a huge transition such as moving or having a new baby.
  2. The SWR book is poorly written, making it very difficult to decipher what you are actually supposed to do. The fact that the chapters are labled "Step 1, Step 2, . . ." is very misleading. It is very verbose and written in almost a "stream of consciousness" format, as though someone wrote out everything they did but never went back to make sure it was in order and made sense. For example, Step 3 is "Read Aloud to All Ages," Step 14 is "Expose to Classical Literature," and Step 23 is "Assign Reading in Books." By themselves, each chapter is a good read. But these are things that most of us are already doing, and you have to read through these pages to get to the parts that you actually need in order to be able to implement the program. This is just one example of many, and it is unfortunate because it does not have to be this way.
  3. My personal belief is that programs ought to be able to be modified for the individual learning and familial circumstances. Ideally, SWR should be implemented as written, as doing so will guarantee the greatest success. But we cannot always have "ideal." However, the author and trainers on the Yahoo group are so adamant that SWR be implemented as written that they are unwilling to help exasperated mothers to adjust the program to their families and individual children. I believe that this approach only drives people away from using a great program. So, for example, if you have a 4yo that is dying to read but is not ready for writing, requests for help will result in advice to not allow him to learn to read yet. If your family is struggling because SWR is taking too long, the advice will be to hang in there and perhaps divide each session into two sessions per day. You will get little assistance paring down the amount of work.
  4. Similar to number 3, above, I have found it difficult to get assistance to modify SWR for a 5yo that is reading well above grade level. [I recently asked the list about how to answer Grasshopper when she was asking how to spell a word. (Should I answer with letters, or with phonograms, even though she is not learning the multi-letter phonograms, yet?) The author, Wanda Sanseri, gave me a great answer about moving ahead with the phonograms, even though we hadn't started the spelling lists, yet. Then a trainer offered me a schedule for older children. When I asked how I might modify it for Grasshopper, she told me I should only teach her the 26 letters of the alphabet. When I pointed out Ms. Sanseri's advice, the trainer was unable to offer any advice on how to proceed. I could have asked again on the list, but by that time I just didn't want to bother with it.]

In spite of all this, I still think this is a wonderful program. But I hope after reading this, you can purchase it with your eyes open.

Latter-day Homeschooling