Happy Saturday morning, lovely readers! It’s been a whirwind couple of months here at the Homestead, so I need to start providing some updates on our goings-on because it’ll be Spring before we know it. In fact, I just ordered seeds a few days ago!
But before we get into that, I’d like to talk about education. As you know, I work in higher education as a professor of English and in writing center administration. My job is demanding but high-impact and values-driven. I love it. You also know that Chloe and Liam both experienced a lot of anxiety last Fall early in the semester as they attempted virtual learning through our public school system. After talking with them both, we embarked on our first-ever homeschooling journey.
Once we got going with homeschool last semester, I felt a little off-kilter about it, but seeing as how we were kind of thrown into it, I think we did an admirable job. Most importantly, it accomplished what it needed to: it reduced anxiety for all of us and helped both kids exercise more balance in their days.
But, it took a lot of time management and direction from me each day, which is not only hard to do while working a full-time job from home, but I know is not good for the development of my kids as advancing learners. I also felt like the emphasis was consistently on the content rather than understanding the activity of learning the content. In education, this would often be referred to as the bucket approach–the idea that learners just need to be filled with the right things to become educated.
As a liberal arts professional, I strongly disagree–education is about learning to think critically and communicate that thinking out to an audience. We are fond of reminding everyone that the more you learn the less you think you know, the opposite effect of the bucket approach. Moreover, truly effective education helps a learner position themselves as a life-long learner–someone who understands how and why they learn, which necessarily involves metacognition and fostering an environment that encourages learner agency, a word that means a learner is responsible for themselves and exercising intrinsic motivation.
So, over Winter Break, while planning my spring courses and doing administrative work for the writing center, I also made a lot of changes to how we do homeschooling. This was a lot of work and also, I mean, what the heck is going on in the world? So most of the time I felt like this meme of this smartly dressed dog concentrating on his job while the world burns around him.
Nonetheless, though, I got done. The kids started back at homeschool this past Monday. I finished all of my college course prep yesterday. Classes start Tuesday. I’m feeling as prepared as one can feel in the middle of a dystopian reality.
Homeschool Adjustments Made:
1. Reduced the reading load but kept the complexity = too much content means they didn’t have time to meaningfully engage with it. I loved the reading list that came with our curriculum, which is why I wound-up purchasing it. It takes a decolonial approach to social studies, which is a huge part of what I do every day in higher education. It focuses a lot on the implications of history on bodies, and especially bodies of people of color and minorities. It includes a ton of minority and people of color voices in the reading list. For those interested, I use the Build Your Library American History 2. Here’s a lot of the books we’ll be reading this semester (though not all of them)
2. Added weekly low-stakes reflective writing in a journal = for literature they get to choose from a list of literature discussion questions; for social studies they are prompted to reflect on things that interested them, confused them, or made them react during the reading and write about it; and at the end of the week they self-assess through reflecting on and writing responses to a series of consistent questions.
3. There are 4 major projects that organize their interaction with the content = the curriculum I chose last semester included a few project ideas, but none of them really signified creative engagement. Last semester I made my own project to finish-out the semester (they had to collaborate on a historic fiction book about the Civil War). This semester I didn’t want to think of things on the fly (not only is that stressful for me, but it’s less effective at influencing learner agency) so I’ve plotted 4 units of 4-5 weeks each. Each project I’ve designed to incrementally scaffold towards learner agency through metacognition and critical thinking (I’ll briefly outline them below).
4. They get time in the schedule to pre-write and reflect on the work of the major project in their journals, right in the context of all their other reflective writings, which helps them see the relationship between all of the content and thinking they do.
5. Lots more feedback from me = each Friday they turn-in their journals and I read through their weeks and provide feedback. The feedback is NOT on grammar, punctuation, or format. It is feedback that asks questions or prompts for more critical thinking. Things like, “what do you think this means?” and “this is an interesting thought, can you explain it more fully?”
6. They have a full syllabus now, including a full semester schedule. This helps them see where they’re at in relation to the semester. It’s like a trail map on a long hike. Walking endlessly can feel overwhelming if you get tired and don’t know where you’re at–you start to think you’ll never stop walking. If you look at a map and see you’re halfway through, though, it’s a lot easier to moviate yourself to keep going.
7. In the syllabus I list a weekly schedule instead of a daily schedule. I give them the pages of books they need to have done by the end of the week, or what activities, etc… need to be done, but they get to decide when it all gets read.
8. I introduced an actual English text = it irked me that there was no formal writing instruction in the curriculum. Literature is not writing; they are two separate disciplines. Furthermore, writing is not natural but requires metacognition, instruction, and practice. Writing is a way of thinking and making our thoughts visible to ourselves and one another, though, so it’s an incredibly useful skill when trying to increase learner agency. They are using a college-level textbook that many professors use in first-year writing because it encourages reflection and is super approachable. It’s called Habits of the Creative Mind. I use a different text for first-year writing because I think Habits is more of a “back door” and I prefer college students to walk through the “front door,” but I do think this one is highly effective for “writers who don’t know they’re writers.” It’s a good fit regardless of age level, and I do have my college students read a few of the chapters alongside the primary text I use. For my kids, though I’m not using every chapter because some are asking too much of them, but for the most part–who cares if it’s for college? Each “chapter” is less than 4 pages long and provides at least 2 low-stakes writing activities to reinforce the concept. These are done in their journals.
9. I provided an overarching theme to our learning that aligns with our family’s values: we are travelers, not tourists! Travelers have a deep engagement with where they are, whereas tourists are visitors mostly focused on relaxation and amusement. Travel is hard but instructive and therefore rewarding. Each major project uses this theme.
10. I drastically changed the schedule = the traditional school model of “these same subjects at these same times every day of the week” was not working for us. We have different energy levels at different times of days. Some days we need to do more of one thing and not others. And college does not operate on this kind of schedule, so fitting my work-life in with homeschooling was challenging. The schedule I’ve designed prompts the kids to do certain activities and subjects at certain times, but these change each day and are flexible to adjustments. In fact, just yesterday we swapped two time blocks out based on how they were feeling and it went smoothly. The schedule exists so they can see about how much time they need to do the work of the week.
The 4 Major Projects:
- Map Your Learning Process (Week 1 – 4)
- Learning Journey Archaeology (Week 5 – 9)
- Choose Your Own Adventure (Week 10 – 14)
- Discovery Island: Investigate to Infinity and Beyond (Week 15 – 18)
Map Your Learning Process:
Everyone learns differently, which is why you need to make your own learning process visible to yourself. Remember how we talked about writing helping us make our thoughts visible? A map is a form of writing; it’s also a form of art. Art is, arguably a text to be read. It communicates to a viewer-reader, after all. So, for this project you will be mapping how you learn. Maps can take many forms–a game board is a map, a hiking trail guide is a map, a globe is a map, an illustration of our solar system is a map, and a flat drawing of the continents and countries is a map.
Below I’ve listed some questions to help you consider what all goes in to learning–it’s likely more than you think! Each of us have feelings about learning that play a role. Where we are can play a role. What we’re learning plays a part. Consider how you might read and feel differently depending on the subject, as well.
- How you think/feel about learning? Anxious? Frustrated? Overwhelmed? Excited?
- What environment do you prefer? Inside? Outside? Alone? Quiet? Music?
- What technologies do you learn best with? Pen? Paper? Laptop? Tablet? Book? Movies? Games? Video Games?
- What think you like learning around? Tea? Hot Chocolate? The cats? Cookies? Your favorite blanket? A messy room? A clean room?
- How long can you learn before you attention span wanes?
- What gets in the way? Family stuff? Chores? Fun things? Distractions? Feelings?
- What stimulates you? Talking with someone? Taking a walk? Reading? Writing?
Learning Journey Archaeology:
After mapping your learning process, you now see what all relates and impacts how you learn–it’s a lot! For this project you’ll be expanding on your maps and a journal entry for English to consider how your learning process has developed and grown over time. You’ll use your memories of events, feelings, and experiences, and then use those experiences to write a story.
Whereas with maps we drew a process of learning and included activities related to l earning to help illustrate what impacts us as learners, this project asks that we become archaeologists. We have to dig through our histories, helping us put together a picture. Once we have this picture, we can draw some conclusions about learning, ourselves as learners, and about how both are experienced and felt in our bodies.
This project should be a narrative–a story–but does not have to be limited to a written document. A narrative can take many forms–a graphic novel and a power point are all relevant ways to “write.” Use your creativity, and most of all, what you think expresses your learning journey best.
Choose Your Own Adventure:
The past has implications in the present and the future; in fact, what we do today shapes what our world will be like in the future! For this assignment you will be traveling back through the time periods we’ve studied to select your own adventure. All adventures start with a question–the spark that leads us to travel somewhere for some purpose. You should look at your journals for clues of what seems interesting and exciting to you about what we’ve learned. Using this spark, you will explore, forging new paths with your ideas and tracing your journey in some way that others can follow. This can be a map, a story, a documentary movie, an illustrated guide book, a travel brochure, and more–anything that can be “read” by a viewer-reader that would make them want to take your adventure, too.
Your project should clearly state your spark–your question–to ignite the curiosity of your viewer-readers and then should persuade viewer-readers to take your adventure by connecting it to our present day–did what happened in your adventure change something for us in our world now? Is there something some people have and others do not have as a result?
Discovery Island: Investigate to Infinity and Beyond:
In this project we will be field scientists discovering and exploring a small part of the world around us–our own Discovery Island–to better understand how we live and how we feel in this world. Together we will collect water saamples from a variety of local sources and from rainwater, then test them. Once we have tested them, we will analyze the results and from there, the possibilities are seemingly infinite! You can compare water samples across various locations to draw conclusions about the safety of our drinking water. You can investigate acid rain and ecosystems. Or, you can use water to investigate soil and its health for plant life.
Once you have investigated using the scientific method, you will initiate some impact for our small island. For example, you might write a letter to the major with your findings, start a website, or create a volunteer activity. This project can be collaborative or individual.
In this set-up they have choices and control, both necessary to fostering an environment of learner agency. They are also tasked with thinking about the process of learning, which encourages metacognition. And they’re also being asked to exercise independence and self-direction. Because the focus of the first 2 projects is on themselves, it naturally encourages intrinsic motivation. I also do not assign grades, but only give feedback intended to generate more thinking; it’s a risk-free environment, perfect for taking chances, making mistakes, and getting messy with their learning.
Chloe is going to be in 7th grade next year, and is loving this. In her words, “I feel like I’m in college,” to which I replied, “Well, you kind of are.” She practically preened when I told her I’ve worked with college students who were homeschooled and started at a younger age. She is at an age where she wants more control and responsibility, and so this is very good for her.
Liam will be in his first year of middle school as a 5th grader next year, and likes the idea of having control and autonomy, but needs a lot of redirection and encouragement to exercise it wisely and conistently. This is developmentally appropriate for his age, and so really, if I get to the point where I don’t have to say, “It’s in your syllabus,” 7 times a day, I will be one happy homeschooling momma. Challenging him in this way will help him make the transition to middle school a little easier, and will serve him well in managing his anxiety.