I can’t believe we’re here already: it’s time to make a decision about K and high school.
She has options. She can go to the Gifted program that we’re zoned for; she can apply to an arts-focused high school for visual arts; she can write the entrance exam for a math-and-science focused program. All three of those options are in the public school system; all three of them will put her on a pretty solid track towards university.
There’s also the option of an alternative school that operates on a democratic school model: each student chooses what they want to learn and how they want to learn it, and teachers play a supporting role as facilitators and advisors. To me, this option sounds a lot like homeschooling, but with the added attraction of other students and a wider variety of teachers. To Mr. December, this option sounds terrible. I’ve tried to suggest he consider it as a type of homeschooling option, because right now he’s hung up on the idea that there are no credits and no diploma (students from this alternative school apply to universities the same way homeschooled teens do.)
Of course, she can also choose to homeschool again next year and reconsider high school in Grade 10; but I’d like that to be a conscious choice and not just a default “Uh-oh, didn’t decide soon enough. Guess I’m homeschooling.”
I compiled an email for her with the available options (that we’re willing to consider: there are more high school options in the Toronto District School Board than I thought) and all of the application deadlines. The ball is in her court to choose which open house events she’d like to attend, and then where she wants to apply. It feels like a very small-scale version of the university decision she’ll have to make in four short years.
Wait. What? Four years?!?! That’s not much time. I think I’ll go give her an extra-long tuck-in now.
Ed. note: He’s back! Did you know that Mr. December’s posts get higher stats than mine do? Anyhow, enjoy the next instalment in his gripping tale of woebraveryevidence-based research.
In my last installment I talked about our initial journey, and how we started to hit a wall with our kids. I had never taught before (well, I was a teaching assistant in university,) so there was a lot of making things up as we went. One idea was to set crushing expectations in order to catch up quickly and justify our life choices (and perhaps even our social status.) So no choices, but plenty of rewards and punishments. We figured that even if this failed, we could shift the blame to the children by talking about “grit” a lot (Read any Prof Duckworth paper on grit – do you see now how your failures are your own fault?) Maybe we could enroll them in a relaxation course so that they could internalize that high-stress schooling is a normal, acceptable occurrence. Anyways, rewards and punishments seemed awesome, and we used this to get past the initial objections from our kids. We had a few more problems though:
No way to punish K: She didn’t like computer games, and didn’t need a lot from us. Rewards and punishments also don’t help when skills or structure are the issue (as opposed to motivation). Her stubbornness also meant without buy-in there would be no progress. Anyways, we quickly understood why her teachers made like Elsa and just Let It Go.
N was a relentless optimizer: He loves computer games, so taking them away was an effective punishment. But he’d do the absolute minimum, juuuuust enough to meet the bar, with the minimum learning. He’d also ask questions like “okay, if I don’t do that, how much screen time do I lose?” so he could weight his options, and once you got past a threshold he would simply say “well, I don’t get screens today, so I won’t do any work either”. So despite his brilliance, progress was hella slow, and we knew extended conflict would grind down our relationship with him over time.
R was mostly doing fine: She was a great writer but needed time to write stories not do worksheets. She was behind but compliant in math, but had a lot of trouble focusing. Rewards and punishments didn’t seem fitting here either.
E was only 5: We eventually enrolled her in part-time online school. We added in a bit of math, but mostly we figured, meh, she’s 5.
In the last post, we had some early successes but now needed a new philosophy. Fortunately for me, I have a secret weapon against ignorance: extensive research. I have a high capacity for technical detail, so I got a dozen books on education & homeschooling, which I read cover to cover, as well as many research papers and a few education websites (my favourite was Alfie Kohn’s blog).
You may not have the time or interest, so here is my summary of my learning:
Public schools suck. Schools suck, including private schools, which suck in different ways. Your school sucks, and the way your children are taught sucks. Grades suck, competition sucks, and coercion sucks. The rewards you gave that you thought made you better than other parents also suck. If you teach at a school, maybe you don’t suck personally, but you probably do, and just listen to this teacher of the year talk about how he sucks too so don’t feel too bad. Even if your kids don’t suck when they enter school, they will by the time they leave, and if they don’t suck by some miracle they’ll be anxious and unhappy, go into the wrong fields to please you, burn out and then hate you later.
To summarize the summary: Modern education systems will produce the suckiest bunch of sucks who ever sucked and your kids will be personally be the suckiest of the bunch of sucks who ever sucked.
I don’t feel this way about the education system (they do a lot of things very right,) so I was surprised at how negative some sources were. Even worse, there was some publishing mishap where the chapters that deal with what to do differently were missing (it’s surprising how common this issue was.)
But whether you see it that way or not, this was a great result for me: I could not do worse.
Since my older two kids were, in postmodernist educational parlance, “sucking big time,” I had the luxury of choosing my path. With an Alfie Kohn video playing dramatically in the background, I took that 50% math test and put it in the garbage. That was the last grade I ever gave. I’m not saying grades aren’t important – they are so, so important – and here is a chart highlighting the value they have by age range:
Fucks You Should Give About Grades In Homeschool
0 + 0i
Just make up a bunch of grades and submit them to universities – what are they going to do, call your principal?
I did later understand better the power of review, which we do more of, and I still need to add in some testing for learning.
I kept hoping someone would recommend bringing spanking back, but no one did. Very few modern experts even advocated for reward/punishment based systems:they talked about being “student centric”—as if our previous education attempts were just for our own benefit.
Okay, all good. But what to do next? Stay tuned.
About the Guest Author: Mr. December is an engineer and homeschooling dad who also moonlights as a blogger sometimes. He likes data, writers who cite their sources, spreadsheets, and his kids. He also has great hair.
Our kids’ school careers began at Montessori. Every day N and K would come home and tell us how much fun they had, puttering around the classroom doing random materials with their friends, with no homework whatsoever. It didn’t seem rigorous enough. They needed something more: evenings of tear-filled pointless homework where we’d eventually do most of it for them. High pressure testing to give the school bragging rights. Music pieces that they hated with lots of difficult notes. Remember: if they’re not resisting practice, it isn’t rigorous enough. You’ll need shorter lunchtime and recesses to make room for all the rigor of course.
So we pulled our happy kids out of Montessori and put them into school #2, which was supposed to be more rigorous in both English and Hebrew curriculum. In terms of happiness it was perfect – both kids were miserable within weeks. But it wasn’t working academically. The math curriculum proceeded glacially, with one assignment asking the kids to write a story about 7×3 (true!). Most assignments were so abstract that I could not see what a right or wrong answer might look like (such as: “what are the physical and emotional state differences between two mountains?”), yet alone how I would do the work myself. In one math test, K got every number right and every spelling wrong – final grade: 50%. The best objection I could muster was to write “Grate Work” on her assignment when I signed the test.
Maybe we needed to face the fact that whatever the hell this school was teaching, my kids weren’t good at it. When the school complained K was late 19.0 times, I saw my opening. After asking repeated questions about why a float instead of integer – is there a way to be late 0.5 of a time? – I wrote a (spoof) email asking if she was the most late in the school, saying we were looking to find things she was good at to encourage her. But alas, talking to other parents, 19.0 was nowhere close to the record – several overachievers were late every single day. K’s dream was to be late 0.5 of a time, but they wouldn’t tell us the secrets of how to do so. We tried everything – just a minute late, half a day late, late but didn’t get the slip, late and then forget something in the car to be even later, but nothing worked.
The next year we switched the older two kids into a public gifted program (school #3), which was wonderful socially, but didn’t seem to help academically.
So along came COVID, the kids were home, and suddenly we could see clearly what was going on. Nothing. Nothing was going on. Our kids were terrible at school and did not know their fundamentals in math or writing. Oops, my bad.
Okay, so what to do – I figured the best thing was to back to rigor. Put the “fun” back in fundamentals. S said to forget public school – let’s try out homeschooling. Teach the basics, and once they learn their fundamentals, power them through the grades. And, perhaps surprisingly, it actually worked, in the short term – the math instruction and drills worked wonders, with the kids’ accuracy improving and their processing time cut in half. I was starting to think I could even work in a few humble brags. But then we hit the wall: they didn’t want to do two hours of Kumon every day plus the basics of writing.
Okay, no problem, I thought, I’ll make my own rigorous work. Math was easy: Every last Kumon math problem done correctly, in order, for a certain amount of time each day. That seemed rigorous enough.
Then I got stuck, as it turns out I didn’t know about anything except math. No matter, we created our four pillars of non-incompetence:
Math: A goal of being two years ahead. I figured that lofty goal would satisfy most people and then they’d forget about it.
English: No idea, but that’s S’s problem
Science: I could not remember anything I did in elementary or middle-school science. Did we even do chemistry? Was it just a bunch of digging in dirt? Wait – thermocline – I remembered that word, for when water changes temperature depending on depth. But I think that was grade 9, so I figured I’d wait to teach them that gem. For now, we just joined HENSE*
Everything else not in the other three: This is S’s problem, so I left it to her, with the only condition that it be rigorous
Now that we had a model, I figured I’d start with a math test: what could be better for rigorous evaluation? That would show the parents we’re not total idiots. So I used a New Jersey grade 5 math test, and then my son got 50%. He rushed through, didn’t know some terms, and there was this one question I had no idea how to solve either (see below).
So what should I do now? Punish? Reward? Unschool? Back then I saw unschooling as the opposite of rigor: sprinkle (sorry, strew) some books around and they’ll be 18 and out of the house in no time!
Stay tuned for the next installment of my journey.
Ed. note: Mr. December offered to change the last two words to “our journey”. I declined. The views expressed in this guest post are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent the views of all of us here at SweetCrunchyJewy. -S
(Just to let you know, this post is only going to cover the first day of our visit. It was supposed to be the whole weekend, but apparently I have a lot to say. I’ll post the rest tomorrow.)
Our weekend was outstanding. We went kayaking, tubing, and snorkeling over shipwrecks; we explored an old fort and learned about nineteenth-century weaponry; we discovered an island that we barely knew existed; and we met some incredible people.
We first connected with J on the recommendation of one of Mr. December’s former co-workers who retired at age 33 to travel the world with his wife. When Mr. December told this guy that we want to travel with the kids, he gave us J’s email address and suggested we call her. We ended up having a half-hour Zoom call with her, talking about homeschooling, worldschooling, and travel. She invited us to come visit her on the island anytime before the end of the month. She followed up our call with an email that essentially said, “That invitation was sincere and enthusiastic. Hope you can come.”
We left home early on Saturday and drove three hours until we arrived in Kingston, Ontario. We texted J to say we’d arrived; she arranged to meet us at the public docks to ferry us across to the island. When we finally found the spot, there she was with her husband, T, smiling and waving.
The ride across to the island took about ten minutes, with the kids sitting on the floor of the small motorboat and the grownups crowded towards the front. Our kids enthusiastically—and loudly—filled any and all gaps in the conversation. For the first time that weekend—but not the last—I was thankful that J and T have been there and done that, parenting four kids. The energy and volume that our kids bring everywhere might have triggered some nostalgia for them, but never impatience.
After lunch at a waterfront patio on the island, we took a walk through the village to retrieve J’s Instant Pot from a friend. Said friend warmly welcomed us and invited the kids to come in and meet their many pets. On the way back to J’s house we stopped for a while so R could climb a tree that grows next to the public library. A dog had escaped from its home across the street and came towards us with a stick in her mouth; I think it was the first time my kids had ever played fetch with a dog. We were officially on island time, where life moves at a walking pace and there’s plenty of time to climb the trees, smell the roses, and pet the animals.
T generously offered to drag the kids around the bay on a giant tube; in the end they must have been out there for over an hour. Apparently once tubing got old, T let the kids take turns driving the boat. They came back wet, tired, and happy. In the meantime, I took out a kayak—a proper one with foot pegs and knee bracing—and spent some time out on the water.
We met three of J and T’s kids over the weekend. Amazing human beings all, and the kids particularly gravitated towards their oldest daughter. She went tubing with them, and by dinnertime on Saturday they were all snuggled up to her watching funny TikTok videos.
Dinner at their home was a fix-your-own tacos affair with two of J’s kids as well as her parents, who were pretty interesting folks in their own right. As the sun started to set, we got into the boat and T ferried us back to Kingston, with the most beautiful dusky sky and almost-full moon in the background.
We checked into our hotel, then went out to walk around downtown Kingston for a while. We enjoyed watching a busker—who juggled fire while walking across broken glass—in the square, introduced the kids to BeaverTails, and enjoyed our dessert in the colourful Muskoka chairs outside before going back to our hotel to sleep.
I felt well enough today to be mostly up and about, with a break in the afternoon when Mr. December took all four kids out for a few hours. I still wasn’t equal to anything requiring original thought, but I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to print out all the new curriculum materials I just bought.
I’m still in love with our new (last year) printer; All I do is hit “print” and it does, double-sided, every time. It’s one of my “best purchase ever” items, alongside other workhorses like my bakfiets (cargo bike,) my power tools, and my giant Omnigrid rulers. You know, stuff that does what it’s supposed to do, reliably and without a fuss. And that, friends, is why my bakfiets is better than people.
But I digress.
The printer has been running pretty much nonstop since 3 p.m. So far I’ve printed and hole-punched History Odyssey for both K and N (one copy each,) History Quest for myself (I still need to make copies of the notebooking pages for R and E,) and Real Science Odyssey: Life for E.
I must admit, I’m getting pretty excited about school this year. Between my super-organized school supply drawers and now my beautifully printed curricula, I’m like that dad in the back-to-school commercial (“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”). Except, of course, that I’m not celebrating getting the kids out of the house everyday, but learning amazing new things and using all these beautiful supplies. Back-to-school never gets old.
Unless, N pointed out, you’re not in homeschool, in which case back-to-school is a drag (for him.) He’s heard from outside sources that back-to-school also necessitates clothes shopping, which he hates. Good thing he’s not going to school. As our homeschool motto goes, “Excellence begins with wearing pants”… but really, any pants will do.
The thing about colds is that they have this progression: sore throat right at the back of the nose, then headache and nasal congestion, then chest congestion, and then today… the “I-can’t-say-more-than-three-words-at-once-or-I’ll-start-coughing” stage. It’s an awkward stage, if you’re a talker like me.
I was hoping that my quiet presence, all gracious nods and regal waving of hands, would inspire the kids to enjoy the quiet too. It didn’t. Instead they were inspired to fill the silence—that’s one of their superpowers, it seems, but they have others as well.
I once spent a few days reading a website by Tom Hodgkinson, author of The Idle Parent. The phrase that stuck out for me was: “The less you do for your kids, the more they do for you.”
Now, before anybody jumps on this as an endorsement of parental neglect, please remember whose blog this is: I’m the one who calls out, “Child labour force to the front door!” whenever there’s a delivery of groceries, so that the kids come and do all the lifting, carrying, and putting away. I believe in raising contributing members of society, and it has to start young.
My particular child labour force is quite adept at filling in the gaps when I’m unwell. Today R and K made the challah completely on their own; denser than mine, but everyone develops their own challah style with time. R also made peach crumble for dessert. And tonight, since I’m trying really hard not to give E the camp cold, N and R tucked her in with hugs and kisses in my stead.
And all of this was done with an absolute minimum of verbal direction from me. No, I wasn’t clapping my hands and cocking my head in the direction I wanted them to look; I just quietly stated what I couldn’t do, and they sorted out who would do it. Remind me of this when they start clawing at each other over screen time, yes?
After lots of research into ready-made curricula, I’ve made my decision:
I’m going to create a curriculum myself.
It’s not that there aren’t lots of fabulous-looking curricula out there; there are, in as many different flavours as there are approaches to education. More, even.
But Mr. December and I have been working on our travel plans (for when we can realistically travel again,) and it looks like our most likely option would be Central and South America, since Costa Rica is open with no restrictions and Ecuador has no restrictions for those who are fully vaccinated (children too young to be vaccinated take on the status of their parents, so we’re good to go.) And as long as we’re there, might as well check out the Galapagos. You know, before climate change and tourism muck the whole thing up and there’s nothing to see.
With that decided, all of the homeschooling pieces have fallen into place. Of course we should learn about the geography and history of the places we’ll be travelling. Olmecs, Aztecs, Mayans, Incas. And then when we get to the Conquistadors and start talking about the monarchy that financed them, we’ll naturally be talking about the Spanish Inquisition (nobody expects it, but there it is) and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. From there, we can talk about the Sephardi Jews: customs, music, food, and language (let’s learn some Ladino!)
I’ve gotten really into the planning; I have the mind map to prove it. I divided it into curriculum areas—Language, Food, Geography, History, Music, Art, Math and Science—and jotted down everything I could think of to learn about them. There’s even a separate section for the Galapagos, highlighted in blue.
I’ve compiled a long playlist of Crash Course History videos and the like to introduce various topics. Our public library gives us free access to Mango Languages, which we’ll use for learning Spanish and maybe Ladino (if they have it.)
So that’s it: I’m dumping the premade curricula and going with Mesoamerican and South American studies. This is going to be so much fun!
I tried to reshelve the library books this afternoon. I really tried. It was okay at first: I took books off the floor and put them on the correct shelves. Then I ran out of space on the correct shelves and had to improvise temporary homes for them, cursing under my breath all the while. Finally, the floor was clear and I stepped back to examine my progress… and realized that there are an awful lot of shelves that contained a hodgepodge of books from all over the house. Damn. I thought I was done.
I shelved the project, if you’ll forgive the pun. It looks like I’m going to have to do a lot more rearranging than I thought, and I just couldn’t wrap my brain around it today. Instead, E and I went outside and painted some rocks.
There’s something very soothing about a nicely shaped rock; and for those of us so inclined, painting said rock is pretty soothing as well. It could be the smoothness of the craft paint, or the purity of the colours themselves, or the repetitive motion of stroking the brush against the stone. Whatever the reason, I find painting rocks to be a relaxing pastime. After almost an hour of painting, I was ready to get to work on report cards, which I’ve yet to finish.
I think I’ve chosen a curriculum for E for the coming year. The literature section focuses on fairy tales and folk tales, which I think could be a fascinating area of study for the older kids as well—PhD theses have been written on the topic, so surely there’s something of value to be learned there. Maybe I’ll have them research the historical roots of fairy tales, read the originals (Perrault, Grimm, Andersen,) and write about what they’ve learned.
I’m a bit stuck on how to teach Jewish History. Right now my only inclination is to not teach it the way I was taught (a combination of very dry textbooks and horrifyingly vivid Holocaust stories.) My kids don’t generally respond well to books designed for schools, what with the banal and “obvious” discussion questions, which means I’ll probably need to find original sources to read with them, which means… back to the library.
I spent most of today reviewing some possible curricula for the coming school year. For months I’ve been making a list of curricula that sound good (based on online discussions between homeschooling parents,) and today I started to check them out. It’s a good thing that most of the publishing companies provide substantial “Try Before You Buy” samples to download and print; it’s so frustrating and disappointing when you see a really good sample, buy the whole curriculum, and realize that the sample was really not representative of the program as a whole.
In case you didn’t know, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of published homeschool curricula out there. Rigorous, relaxed, creative, technical… of course, my simplest criterion for whittling down the options is religion: if it mentions Jesus or has copywork of verses from Christian scriptures, it’s game over.
(An actual math problem I came across: Jesus had 12 disciples. One of them betrayed him. How many does he have left? What’s that you say? Eleven? WRONG. Zero. They all died two thousand years ago.)
As overwhelming as the options for E are, at least she’s starting in grade one, so she’s coming in basically at the ground level in every curriculum. For R, N, and K (grades five, six, and eight respectively,) it’s another story. I need to find something that’s accessible even if a student hasn’t done the previous levels in a series.
I’ve been tempted (as I often am) to forget about published curricula and just do my own thing. I certainly have the research skills and creative wherewithal to do it, but if I’ve learned anything from this past year, it’s that come January and February I need something I can open to the correct page and just follow instructions. Seasonal Affective Disorder hits me too hard for me to be able to direct my own program, even if it’s pre-planned. I really just need something to tell me what to do.
So I’m left trying to figure out, if I can’t find a complete program I like, what elements we really need and how much is too much. Greek and Latin roots are an absolute yes; there’s a series that introduces vocabulary as used by famous writers which looks awesome; there’s a great spelling program that explicitly teaches why English is spelled the way it is; and there’s a method of teaching writing that starts at the level of sentences, even with older students, and doesn’t move on to paragraphs or essays for quite some time. And I haven’t even started listing the possibilities for literature!
I started working on this at 9:00 this morning. By 2:00 p.m. my eyes were crossing and all the curricula were starting to look alike, so I had to stop. At least I’ve chosen biology for the big kids and history for everyone; next I have to figure out what the heck to do with the big kids for Language Arts.
Our homeschooling shelves have become a repository of science lab supplies: PH testing paper, bottles of powdered acids, magnifiers, magnets, prisms, and just about anything else we could find. We say it’s for the kids, for homeschooling, but sometimes it’s just for us grownups.
Our shower drain has been getting blocked increasingly often lately. I was inclined to blame Mr. December’s hair (it’s shoulder length now and he has way more hair than I do.) We used Drano and Liquid Plumr and I tried to pull out the hairs that were caught on the grate. But by the end of this morning’s shower, Mr. December was up to his ankles in water—and he was standing on wooden decking that’s already two inches above the floor.
We armed ourselves with all manner of tools, but it only took a minute or two to pry the drain grate up. Mr. December using my small wrecking bar to reach into the drain. After a few unproductive tries, he pulled up an enormous clog. I was right, there was hair; but there was something else too—could it be cement?
I pulled out a big chunk of the solid stuff and inspected it. I even took it to the kitchen table and looked at it through a magnifying glass.
“Hey, guys!” I called to the kids, “this is so cool! It looks like miniature coral!”
E came racing over. K sauntered over, took a look, and said, “It does look like coral. Huh.” The other two kids were uninterested.
Feeling pretty sure it was just calcium buildup from the hard water, I went and poured some vinegar down the drain to dissolve the crud we couldn’t reach.
“Does that actually work?” Mr. December wanted to know.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but in our house the usual answer to “does that work?” is, “go try it and find out.”
That’s how I ended up conducting an experiment all by my lonesome. I put chunks of the clog in glasses containing water, mountain dew, and white vinegar respectively. Then I tested the PH of each liquid and watched to see what happened.
I tried to involve the kids—I really did—but they weren’t interested. I continued anyway. For science, and to satisfy my own curiosity. I could claim that it was supposed to be educational for the kids, but now you all know the truth: absent the children, I was still gung-ho about the experiment.
And, for the record, yes, the vinegar worked. Also—I’d think twice before drinking Mountain Dew.