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September 21, 2015

After a morning of lessons at home, we set off on the metro for homeschool day at the science center.  Beyond the planned chemistry lesson, we talked to a fellow rider about how the brain processes extra or missing letters in texts.  The kid learned another way to use “vocation,” one of his recent vocabulary words.  We talked about how it one might go about figuring out the average speed of the metro train, and the units of measurement that would be most appropriate. We read the informational panel in the building where the science lesson was held, and learned that castle-like armories were built in the wake of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.  We also identified the Greek Key pattern in the metalwork doors.  Such a nice day, filled with formal and informal learning.

Recommendation: Prime Climb

September 15, 2015


I was looking around for a birthday gift, and stumbled upon the game Prime Climb.  It wasn’t age-appropriate for the child I was buying for, but I knew our family had to have it.  It arrived today, my kid wanted to play it immediately, and then he wanted to do the math for my turns as well.  We’re about to play it again.  We’re fans of primes around here, but this is a great game marrying math and strategy for everyone—and it doesn’t take that long to play.

Field Trips

September 11, 2015

When our kid was in public school I was generally opposed to field trips, as the educational pay-off didn’t seem to balance out the loss of instructional time due to transportation.  We live in a large city, and it takes a long time to get anywhere, plus it takes a lot of time to organize kids at both ends.  On the field trips I went on, usually the kids were given minimal instruction and tended to run a bit wild.  I don’t doubt that there are a better ways to run field trips, either through the use of museum docents or through more advance preparation by teachers (or parents).  It just didn’t seem to happen much.

I know field trips are often a big part of homeschooling, and the freedom from a school schedule facilitates visiting cultural centers at off-peak times.  We just came back from a week of travel, and I’m counting three of the days as field trip days.  We visited a living history museum, which presented farms and villages from different phases of the westward expansion and settlement, and from different ethnicities.  We also hiked a glacial lake, and saw the boulders deposited by the retreat of the glacier.  This followed a visit to a geology museum.  I’m hoping that these trips made a bigger impression than just reading about these things.  A recent study on the educational value of field trips suggests that recall of facts from museum visits is indeed quite strong.  And I’m pretty sure the only reason I remember much about glaciers is having experienced their effects on the terrain under my feet.

Cultural Knowledge

August 28, 2015

I thought this editorial by Natalie Wexler in the New York Timewas spot-on, arguing for the acquisition of skills alongside of in-depth explorations of topics in the pursuit of knowledge.  In my five years of parenting a public school kid in large city, it was apparent that social studies and science took a back seat to math and language arts—because the latter were tested—and it wasn’t always clear to me what was being studied in language arts. Indeed, concerns about knowledge played into our decision to pull our son from an immersion program—he just didn’t seem to be gaining the factual knowledge I remember from school, and that will serve as the building blocks for more sophisticated work in middle school and beyond.  I’m impressed with the Core Knowledge Language Arts materials available online, and am going to try one of the units with my son next week.  I’ve also looked at the engageNY materials for his grade, and the topics look great. When I opened the one most of interest, however, I got a 700 page document, much of which seemed to be how a given task aligned with certain standards!  This is not so user-friendly for homeschoolers, alas.


August 27, 2015

One of my son’s issues is that he is really slow at writing.  Set him at a writing task, and we will hear over and over again that he doesn’t know what to write.  We’ll come back in half an hour and there will be two sentences on his page, at which point there might be yelling.  I got a prep book for the ISEE* and noted that there was a 30 minute essay included.  Fearing that he would turn in a mostly blank test book, I decided he should practice writing essays in 30 minutes.  This morning I gave him topic, told him he had 30 minutes, and it was like a miracle: he wrote a four paragraph essay in that time.  He needs to work on argument (as do 85% of my undergrads), but I was astounded at the difference it made.  I should have guessed, I suppose, based on his love of Math Minutes.  There are other ways to use a timer in homeschooling, and the Time Timer looks pretty cool for these purposes—though not cheap.  I’m reminded, too, that many academics use the Pomodoro method to get their writing done.  (I’ve always been motivated more by word count than time.)

* One of the reasons I started thinking about homeschooling was the ISEE sample tests online, which, when I looked at them last spring, seemed well beyond what my kid’s school was preparing him to do.

Standards / Competency Based Grading

August 26, 2015

I don’t know if I’m supposed to keep grades in homeschooling—I haven’t really got that far in reading up on the legal requirements—but this article about standards based grading at a high school near Fresno caught my eye.  The students move up when they reach a certain level of achievement, and may not be in the same place in all subjects.  As one student notes, “That’s very helpful for me because I am mostly good at math and not that good at ELA. When I am better at math than some other kids, I can move ahead to what I need to rather than being held back.”  This kind of happens automatically in homeschooling—like the student quoted, our son is better in math and needs more help and support in ELA, so that’s what we do.  But given that the neglect of gifted students has been in the news ahead of the release of Failing Our Brightest Kidsit seems that student pacing based on competency is a idea worth considering for many students and many grades.  It would change how instructors think about grading, and what kind of work is judged meaningful.

I can’t, at present, see how I could do this at the college level in a course with TAs, but I think it is something to work towards for classes at other levels.

And of course, competency based grading seems well-suited for homeschooling.


August 24, 2015

Two articles frame testing and opting out in different ways, based on recent polls.  Working from the new PDK/Gallup poll on attitudes toward education, the Washington Post concludes that Americans think standardized testing has gone too far.  The Atlantic draws on an Education Next poll, which shows a majority of Americans against opting-out of standardized tests, noting that African-Americans and Hispanics generally support testing because it provides important information on achievement gaps.  Having gone through a few years of testing with my son, I would argue that testing is necessary, but there is too much of it (and too much preparation for it).  Until there’s a way to improve the teacher pipeline and make sure that every teacher is a good teacher, testing seems to provide one of the only ways to prompt teachers to stay on track with the curriculum.  However, there is no reason for all the practice tests, and no reason that testing should take up two weeks’ worth of mornings.  I’ve just gotten practice tests for the ISEE, and it is a two and half hour test that covers vocabulary, mathematical skills and reasoning, and writing.  A test of this length would seem to offer a pretty good snapshot of what students know.  I’ve even read that not all students would need to take tests to get a sense of how a school or teacher is performing.

More cheerful reading: Kristina Rizga reports in Mother Jones on students who are refusing tests as the measure of their attainments, and teachers who coach each other so they can bring out the best in their students.  Rizga writes, “It’s not just students who miss out on a chance to learn when standardized tests set the pace. Teachers, too, lose opportunities to improve their craft and professional judgment—for example, detecting where their students’ thinking hits what McKamey calls a ‘knot’ and figuring out how they can improve.” In other words, you can’t fix education through test scores, but through improving teacher education and support.