Friday, August 16, 2013

Be True to Your School

I have been trying very, very hard to conform.  I have spent the past 6 months looking at curriculum that would fit what I knew our charter program would look at and consider appropriate for high school credit, which pretty much means a standard public school textbook.  I have tried and tried to make us fit the mold, only to discover what I should have known all along...

God broke the mold when making Team LaJoy.

Why did it take me so long to figure that out?  Why was I willing to so easily cave in to conformity?

I have spent an agonizing couple of weeks (Heck, more like a couple of months) trying to shape our school into what someone else would validate.  I have second guessed myself, and ultimately realized we had drifted way off course.

After another meeting on Monday, I came home with shoulders hunched, and a laundry list filled with "You can't do this anymore" or "That book isn't allowed." or "They can't get credit for that."  I haven't felt that defeated in a very long time.

I came home, and later in the evening we called a family meeting.  We asked the kids what they thought of school now, and down to the last one, they are all demoralized and, simply put, hating it.

Matthew said, "Mom, I thought we left public school because of this type of learning, and it feels like now we are doing public school at home.  I don't have time to read because I am filling out a bunch of worksheets with meaningless questions."

Angela said, "I can't remember anything we have studied the past 3 weeks.  It isn't sticking in my brain.  I don't know why, I used to remember lots of things when you taught differently.  I wonder how kids remember things at school with textbooks?"

Kenny said, "I miss all of us working and learning together.  We had great conversations and we talked about important things.  I like discussing things as a family and I learn more that way."

Olesya said, "I don't mind textbooks, but they are boring."

Joshua said, "I miss our old school.  It's going to be a very long year."

After listening to them all voice their dismay, Dominick spoke up and said, "I don't care about the money.  When I come home at the end of the day, the kids are all off in a corner, buried in paperwork.  There is no happy chatter, they don't tell me anything interesting that they have learned during the day like they used to.  You've tried everything, and I think that doing it the way the school wants means they are not going to learn much.  I don't care if I have to take a third job, the funding isn't worth it.  Pull 'em out."

And so, that is exactly what we are doing.

We are hitting the "Reset" button.

I did a lot of soul searching to get to this place.  We all get stuck doing things we don't want to do or don't care for, was it wrong to "give in" to the kids?  Shouldn't they be forced to do a textbook/workbook combo whether they like it or not?  The thing is, they never fought it.  Even though they realized they were going to get very little out of it, the completed worksheet after worksheet, and answered mindless question after mindless question without a single complaint, 9 or 10 hours a day.

Was I just wanting to take the easy way out myself?  Was I looking to have a lack of accountability so I could do things "my way" with no interference?  Could be, I am a "my way or the highway" kind of gal sometimes, I guess I'd be the first to admit that character flaw.  But this was definitely not the easy way out, this was proving harder and harder with each passing day.

Maybe I am just not good at teaching, particularly at a higher level.  Maybe I hit my own personal wall, and doubt assailed me as I thought about my capabilities.  Everyone who has looked at me askance as I answered their questions about our intent to homeschool through high school popped up in my mind.  I don't have anyone fooled, I am not a genius or, let's face it, not even college educated.  Have I tapped out what I can do?  Are folks right that I am harming the kids by attempting what seems to them to be the impossible...homeschooling high school without a college diploma myself?  This one I failed to have a comeback for.

Maybe I just have the wrong curriculum to work with,  perhaps a different set of materials would make a difference. Well, we tried three different science programs and struck out with all three.

The past six or eight weeks have been a process of gradually increasing doubt overtaking any confidence I might have built up in years prior.  Seeing the kids wade through hour after hour of what I would normally have called "busy work" and struggle to retain anything broke my heart little by little.  We've all worked so hard, we have sorted out so many issues, we have had some success, and here we are completely, utterly stuck.  Countless hours laying wide awake in bed, trying to ascertain exactly where I was going wrong led me to not a single helpful conclusion.

That was, until I listened to our kids, and listened to my own heart.

Then, I did something that really opened my eyes.  I went back to our homeschool's "founding document" and re-read it.  Four years in, and our belief in our initial goals have only strengthened.  There in the document I put together right after returning home from Kazakhstan with the girls,  I was reminded of what was important to us:

When our children reach maturity and graduated from high school, it is our goal that they would:

1)  Lead a God centered life.
2)  Exhibit good moral character in all circumstances.
3)  Have an understanding of themselves as part of a community, and not be solely centered on "self"
4)  Have a well developed intellectual curiosity and be self-directed, motivated learners.
5)  Have a base of strong, practical life skills to build upon.

*  We will always place family above anything else.
*  We will recognize that learning happens in both traditional and non-traditional settings.
*  We will remember that education is not a competition
*  We will respect each of our children for the unique and wonderful individuals that they are.
*  We will work to help our children discover their God given talents.

As I read back over this list and I compared it to where we are right now and what we are doing to please the school, I realized that we had clearly drifted waaaayyyy off course.  We were ready to give up volunteering to have time for more worksheets, which goes against #3 in a big way.  Being told how to think, what box to check, and catching myself actually saying, "Unless you go on to do XYZ you will likely never use this information again.  Just try and remember it long enough to take and pass the test".

I am embarrassed to admit I even said that.  And I complained about "teaching to the test" about public school, and here I was doing exactly the same thing at home.  Matthew had been right, I had  invited public school systems and styles right into our home and sat them down at our kitchen table.

How can a child grow into a "Self-directed, motivated learner" when they are being told every moment what they are to think, say and do, and how to parrot back answers so that the textbook manufacturer will be able to say, "See? It works."  Never mind the fact that such a shallow learning approach means kids may be able to accurately guess "true" or "false", but can they explain it in depth?  Can they infer anything else from it?  Can they shoot off from the main topic or compare and contrast it to something unrelated, yet similar?  When you tell a kid, "Give me back the answer I want to hear" they will do exactly that, without a lot of thought.  When you ask a kid, "Explain what this means, tell me where else you see this happening, what else might this change?, you are far closer to the path of real learning.

As I read item after item, and then re-read it, I shook my head in anger at myself.  How could I have led us down this path?  How did I let us get so very far off course?  Miserable kids, miserable teacher...when 6 months ago we were having a blast and learning SO much that kids were tumbling over one another in their excitement to answer questions, or share insights.  

How do you get so far off course?

By allowing things to be "off" by just one degree at a time.

Little by little, as our school changed to go charter and please the state officials, I changed too.  In anticipation of what I knew was coming with a combination of charter as well as entering the high school years, I didn't pay attention to my internal compass.  

I kept trying to fit us into what a new mold would look like, knowing the funding offered was, in large part, what was allowing us the great gift of having me home to educate the kids.  In doing so, I did something I rarely do, I became a slave to the almighty dollar.

It is hard not to, when your husband works from before sunup to after sundown at physically exhausting work. I am keenly aware of the effort Dominick puts in every single day to keep clothes on our backs and Walmart carts full of groceries.  I haven't brought in any income in four long years, and he has born the pressure of that.  How could I possible not do everything within my power to see to it that our school supplies and curriculum were covered?  It is easily $2500 or more each year for five kids.  I am sure some homeschool for less, but they are more likely to have kids scattered in age and lots of hand me down curriculum, where we have four that are grouped together relatively tightly and are all studying the same things at the same time, meaning multiple copies of the same texts.  The field trips the school funding covered were awesome, and frosting on the cake.  While we will miss that, it isn't an end all and be all for us.  But we can't do without the basic staple items.

And yet, how can we continue this way?  What is the point if our kids aren't learning?

Once again, we don't fit.  It was abundantly clear that high school...if we wanted any real learning to occur...would have to look and feel different.  As I began to accept that reality, I recalled a close friend who 3 years ago or so told me with a grin on her face, "You know you have totally ruined them.  They are having so much fun learning, and are doing so well, they will never be able to go back to a regular classroom and be satisfied."  At the time, neither of us realized how close to the truth she was.  And honestly, it isn't a bad thing. 

The materials I was being forced to use which were "traditional" were, to put it bluntly, boring as hell...awful, superficial.   As I pounded and pounded trying to get those square pegs in those round, textbooky holes, I internally asked myself, "How does anyone learn with this stuff?  Why can't they use real books? When do we get to the "good" questions that really make you think?" and then, "We'll spend so much time filling in worksheets, I'll never be able to throw in a real project of any sort."

As I listened to the kids and the defeat in their voices, as I listened to Dominick and his firm resolve, and as I listened to God whispering over and over, "This isn't going to work...this isn't going to work...but trust me and I'll take care of it, if only you'll trust me...I've never failed you when you've stepped out in faith.", I knew it was time to cut the public school cord altogether.

And I am really, really frightened.  I have no idea how we can afford the additional costs, I have no idea if I will do well without accountability, and I have no idea if I can turn this around and get back on course.  But I'm going to give it my best shot.

I spent the last 5 nights up until 2:00 am or later, researching things like independent testing services, homeschool tracking software (with 5 kids, a notebook just won't cut it), homeschool law in Colorado, and creative and interesting curriculum.  When I had asked the kids what they preferred for school, they all named a unique, critical thinking sort of curriculum we have used before, Connect the Thoughts.  Every one of the kids asked if we could go back to using some of that.  They all pointed at our study last year of Westward Expansion and how much they learned from the variety of approaches we took, none of them with a textbook.  Matthew even said later to me as we sat side by side working yesterday, "Mom, you know when you think about it, textbooks are pretty old school.  With films, the internet, and regular library books, you learn way more than what's in a textbook."  Then he asked me the question of the decade, "Why do schools think that a textbook is the best way to learn?  After all, our founding fathers were often self-educated with plain old books and experiences. Why is a textbook seen as the only way to learn? That just seems so dumb to me."

You know what?  It does to me as well.  That's not to say we don't use textbooks, but there is a difference in our approach.  We control the textbook, we don't let it control us. In fact, I suppose it is sort of like the college professor who will assign certain chapters from a textbook or certain questions to be answered from it, but you never use the entire book and it is expected that other resources are also going to be used.  And who says high school can't be as creative and interesting as the lower grades are?  Maybe it is standard education that has veered off course and has limited creative learning to a point that is deeply sad as they chase test results.

Or maybe Team LaJoy is just too weird.

I don't know, but as I got out of the shower this morning, despite having hours of data entry ahead of me creating our new school tracking system, I felt excited about teaching for the first time in months and months.  I already had an idea for a comparison poster I want the kids to research and create reflecting the differences between the Maya, Inca, Aztec, Olmec and Toltec civilizations.  Their textbook gave them 2 pages of information on all of them combined.  We need more.  My mind was moving ahead to trying to find study guides to go with the History Channel's America:  The Story of Us, which we are going to watch.  I thought about all the links I have saved in my emails to show the kids, interesting current event topics which we have pushed aside in our desire to keep up with repetitive, monotonous worksheets...links to clips or articles about everything from what mosquitoes do inside you to racial mapping of the US to a short clip where someone used a huge pile of jelly beans to illustrate just how few hours in a single lifetime a person has to pursue hobbies, dreams etc. because our days get filled with work, cleaning, and sleeping.  It was like a faucet was turned on, and suddenly I no longer felt trapped in how to teach!!

It moved into other areas, as the kids sparked up a bit after telling them we were seriously considering leaving the school program and striking out on our own.  As I looked around me this
evening and saw creativity and "intellectual curiosity" everywhere I turned, I couldn't help but be reassured we were making the right decision.  Matthew was curled up on the floor reading an adult non-fiction novel about "zoonoses"...viruses that are transmitted to humans from animals.  Olesya was making friendship bracelets from her birthday.  Kenny was building a boat out of Legos which was a replica of some pirate ship he had read about.  Joshua was acting out a scene from his imagination...all by himself as he usually does.  Angela was drawing a stunning cover on one of Kenny's notepads he has started carrying to help him remember things he forgets.

Other than financially, how can this be wrong?  We have kids who love, love, love learning, and who are begging us to provide them with something "meatier" than fill in the blank/ true or false questions.  They want to discuss and debate topics, they want to read challenging ideas, and they want to be who they are and met where they are at academically, which was really the whole point of homeschooling.  Out of necessity, they learn differently...not out of stupidity.  They are bright, articulate, and hard working.  They just need things explained more patiently, and in different ways.  They need visuals, they need to talk through, about and around something until they totally see it from all sides so they can create "hooks" for more learning.  They may need to show proof of learning in different ways, or be taught differently, but they are far from ignorant. 

And we need to be free to teach them in the ways best suited to their needs.  Really, I guess what I am saying despite it sounding corny is, we need to be true to our school,and that is exactly what we are going to do.

Too much is at stake to do otherwise.


Dawn said...

Very cool. :)

Anonymous said...

Halleluiah! I am so happy for all of you!
Teresa F.

Anonymous said...

There is a video going around this week showing Ashton Kutcher receiving an award, one of the things he points out is that the world around us, the system was created by people and we have the capacity to create our own worlds for others to live in...tests, metrics, "shoulds" are all things created by human beings no smarter than yourself. So proud of you for taking this step. I know it can be scary, but hang in there!

Kelly in the Foothills

Anonymous said...

oh, I meant to say that Angela did an awesome job on Kenny's notebook cover!

Also, not to add more to your plate but I bet one of your kids would like to learn more about raising food for the family. Maybe a green house for growing lettuce and such over the winter (home built of course) or a chicken coop (home grown eggs are the best and if you started getting too many eggs the kids could sell them and the veggies too).Chickens are pretty low maintenance and fun to watch chasing grasshoppers etc. You might even pick some layers up off of craigs list.

take care,
Teresa F

Anonymous said...

Oy! This post makes me sooooo sad! It's not just your kids who need a curriculum strong on critical thinking and intellectual curiousity. It's EVERY kid . . . and our school systems and society just don't see it and/or support it. What a different country we would have . . .

Karen Nesius Roeger said...


That is a huge leap of faith, but from what you post on your blog and the few conversations we ever had after church when I've visited my mom, you are just the person to pull it off!

Karen Nesius Roeger

Hilary Marquis said...

I've got my pom poms out for Team LaJoy!

schnitzelbank said...

Teacher here. There's a few things I think you're understanding. It's important:
Textbook does not equal curriculum.
The textbook is just one tool.
It will give you hints to the scope and sequence are the minimum standards, but it is not all-encompassing of the depth or breadth of the topics.
You have to determine the essence of what your kids are going to learn about a topic, what are the outcome goals, and work backwards from there, to create the lessons, activities, proper scaffolding and spiraling of content, intermediary assessments to check for understanding.
None of this means plow through a textbook. Good teachers don't do that, and you'd be hard pressed to enter a public or charter high school and see students just plowing from one page to the next.
So yes, if that's what's going on, you're doing it wrong.
This is not a dig against all homeschool families, because there are ones, such as yours, that really value education and recognize your children's individual differences and needs. Good teachers do that.
And good teachers also know how to design a curriculum. We have the theoretical knowledge of learning processes, as well as the deep knowledge of our content area, access to professionals in our field for collaboration, and access to high quality raw materials to accomplish our goals.
You can do it- but there is so much for you to learn.
Two book suggestions: Understanding By Design, McTeigh and any solid text on Differentiated Instruction.
And keep it up! You have to create the magic-- the textbook is *not* the curriculum!

schnitzelbank said...

A lot of teachers create the own curriculum guides. Check you state standards and see if you are meeting their outcome expectations with the materials you create.

And sometimes, the wheel has been created already:

Schlef Family said...

Congratulations! You'll do great!

Ohiomom2121 said...

Dear Cindy,
We are off the home school bandwagon at the moment, but when we did HS, we used a very eclectic approach. You are erudite enough to manage the high school level, and your hard work will pay off. I shook my head at the trauma you were describing over the last 3 weeks but did not comment negatively. Frankly I was sort of wondering how long it would take before you all would "crack" from the pressure of too many hours for too little reward. Here in Ohio we do have to teach to the test, since OGTs are necessary to graduate, so be sure you know the elements needed. Then do your thing! But, don't buy 2 of the same books...surely they can schedule the use time. Good luck!

Writer200 said...

I'm so tickled for you!! I know it's as scary as can be, but you and those 5 precious young LaJoy's have the stick-to-itiveness to make homeschooling through high school work.