Friday, February 27, 2009

The Long View

For unschoolers, or interest-led learners, like us, planning for college takes an unusual path. Our oldest is still only 8, but each time somebody tries to frighten me with that zinger, "What are you going to do about college?", I get a little pang of fear in my stomach.

Evidently I'm not the only one worrying. To address the fears of unschoolers everywhere, my blogging friend Jena recently posted about how her interest-led, homeschooling son got into the University of Chicago on a full scholarship. The post, which includes the transcript sheets that she developed along with several helpful links, can be found right here.

If you shake in your boots each time somebody asks about college for your little dears, you should check out Jena's post. In this, as everything else interest-led, she is right on the money.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

How to Teach Thoreau to Little Guys

From winter 08 09

We needed an outside-type field trip, so today we went to Walden Pond, ostensibly for a walk, but really to check out the tiny house where Henry David Thoreau lived and wrote, by himself, for two years between 1845 and 1847.

I wanted to give Luke and Owen a sense of Thoreau, even though I knew it would be hard to explain to them what he wrote about and why. How do you translate across time and a serious difference in language to help young children understand the motives of people who lived so long ago?

I started talking in the car on the way there, about imagining no cars, no airplanes overhead, just the sound of the wind in the trees... I told them we were going to see the place where 'Thoreau lived, all by himself, so that he could see if he could do it.'

Luke piped up with 'oh - like Johnny Appleseed!'

'Kind of the opposite of Johnny Appleseed,' I replied, 'because Thoreau wanted to see if he could go to the woods and pretty much avoid people, do most everything on his own, and write about his experience whereas Johnny Appleseed wanted to bring apple trees to as many people as he could. One wanted alone time, the other wanted to be with people.'

Both boys thought about that for a while, and then Luke said, 'hey, maybe we'll find his little shack while we're walking!'

I thought, 'small steps, Karen, small steps!'

Today, a pretty windy, chilly day for walking, both kids enjoyed themselves. The first thing we did was check out Thoreau's house, rebuilt closer to the road than the house site. Luke was so excited to find the 'shack' and truly captivated when he heard that Thoreau built two trapdoors into the floor. I swear, he went to bed tonight puzzling out why anyone would build trapdoors into their floor - if you know the answer, send it along our way, please! - and so we set off into the woods to find the house site.

We walked along the water of Walden Pond, and every couple hundred yards we came upon a stone staircase leading right into the frozen water. The boys were fascinated, and kept wondering aloud why Thoreau built these; they finally concluded that he really liked to swim, so he needed these stone staircases to get to the water.

We ate lunch at the house site, largely because the wind wasn't quite as howly there as near the water.

From winter 08 09

Thoreau had a lovely view from his front door:

From winter 08 09

I cannot be sure if 8 and 4 year-old boys truly appreciate living as Thoreau did at Walden Pond. They may not have a clear understanding of who Thoreau was, or why he went to the woods, but their interest has been piqued.

I will say this - going there on a windy, overcast day in February brings the true experience a lot closer than visiting in summer, with the rest of the tourist world.

Plus, we got a nice walk out of it; driving there, Ben and I listened to a talk-radio show about television, and were shocked to discover that the average American watches more than five hours of tube a day! As we listened, with one kid reading in the back and the other one looking out the window at the scenery going by, I felt thankful that tv plays such a small part in our lives.

I would much rather be out enjoying the natural world than in front of the tube, and today my family seemed to feel that way, too.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Winter Must-Reads

Lately, we've had lots of time to read because winter has lost, shall we say, a touch of its thrill. Of course, we do enjoy our outside time around here, but now in these waning days of February, with the snowpants mostly covered in mud (but unable to be abandoned on account of the remaining snow), we spend less time out, and more time in, 'recovering' in front of the fire with good books, hot cocoa and popcorn.

Kids' favorites include a variety of chapter books, especially Jack and Annie in The Magic Tree House series, Wishbone the Dog in an adventure about Beowulf, and The Artemis Fowl series, adventurous and funny books about an Irish boy and his obsession with faeries.

Luke and Owen devour graphic novels by the bagful since our library gave this genre its own shelf a few months ago; graphic versions of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Shrek, the Incredibles, and the Star Wars Clone Wars series top their lists right now.

When they want more than a book, but not quite a full-blown unit study, we pull out the Lithgow Paloozas Boredom Blasters, kits with great ideas that children ages 5(-ish) and up can do mostly themselves, and that younger kids enjoy at their own level, too. I first blogged about the Boredom Blasters back last February, when we visited my folks in the Rocky Mountains, and they continue to thrill us all now. Thank you, John Lithgow!

I'm learning about randomness and probability in a great, readable book by Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard's Walk. I say readable because, while I'm not a big math person and therefore not a likely candidate to comprehend probability-speak, Mlodinow makes the concepts of probability understandable and - more importantly, I think - pertinent to my life. I have laughed out loud while reading this book, reason enough to endorse it, but I learn as well while I read.

The books that have obsessed me most this winter, though, at least until I finished the fourth in the series and must now wait until the author publishes the next, are those in the 'Percy Jackson and the Olympians' series; the first is called The Lightning Thief. These books, about modern day teenage demi-gods, have taught me almost as much about Greek mythology as Luke knows from reading the myths themselves. Author Rick Riordan brings the gods to light, for anyone interested in Greek mythology, but even if you're not they are just great, light reading.

So, these are the books that we've been obsessed with this winter; any books you can't put down? Tell me about them, and happy reading!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Stone Age Techie in the Boston Globe

We've gone old-school around here this week.

Last Saturday, I read this Op-Ed piece about the importance of high scores in educational testing. While I disagreed with the whole piece, one part in particular left me speechless.

Author Kathleen Madigan wrote: "Just a decade ago, Massachusetts had lower reading scores than Connecticut. But while the Commonwealth's reading scores improved more than any state's between 1998 and 2005, Connecticut experienced some of the nation's most significant declines. Leaders in Hartford chose to focus on "how to" skills like critical thinking and problem-solving over academic content ... Connecticut has recently seen the error of its ways. It has discarded the focus on how-to skills and joined the growing number of cities and states adopting Massachusetts' academic standards as their model."

I wondered how anyone could dismiss critical thinking and problem-solving skills, arguably two of humanity's most important talents, in favor of high scores. And, in part because I've been watching the John Adams series on DVD, I decided to voice my opinion in a decidedly old-fashioned way - I wrote a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe's editorial page.

I didn't think it would get in to the paper, I understand that the Globe gets hundreds of letters a day, but it felt good to write it anyway. I was taking part in an age-old tradition, the debate of ideas.

But I guess they decided it was okay, because here it is on today's Editorial Page!

Mine was not the only letter that the Globe received about this topic. The editor printed 3, all in stark disagreement with the original author's belief in test scores as the be-all and end-all. In this one, a 40-year teaching veteran rails against assessment. Also, Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stamford University, takes offense with both Madigan's argument and with the part Madigan accuses Darling-Hammond herself of playing in it.

Reading these other letters, I felt so validated. That my letter was published along with those of a teacher and a Stamford University professor, both of whom expressed themselves so well, gave me goosebumps. How exciting to be counted among such people!

The whole episode has left me thinking, thank heaven for newspapers, Op-Ed pages, and good old-fashioned debate.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

This Weekend, Go to the Carnival!

... The Carnival of Homeschooling, I mean, now up and running at Topsy-Techie.

I only found Topsy-Techie's blog a few weeks ago, and I just love it - I bet you will, too. Look out for my post, in the Parenting Patches section, if you head over for the carnival!

The Ocean In Winter

I know it's weird, but I love the ocean in the off-season. In fact, I prefer it to the summer, when beaches and roads are crowded and everyone is frying in the sun.

So the other night, when the weatherman said something about the recent full moon combined with high tides making for great beach-combing, I knew where The Stone Age Techie's next field trip would be!

From winter 08 09

From winter 08 09

From winter 08 09

We went, and wandered, and got sand in our boots. It was a really good day.

For our next field trip, I want the ocean and some good tidal pools! I'm already figuring out where we'll end up, and feeling grateful that we live so close to the coast.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Not Hooked on Phonics

Recently, I was thinking about Luke's last school teacher, just before he left 2nd grade, telling me about new research that showed kids retain spelling better when they memorize it properly the first time, kind of the direct opposite of inventive spelling.

At the time, I thought only of making Luke's school life a little easier, by stopping the memorization of 'sight' words. He was supposed to have memorized about 100 of these by the end of 1st grade, and the pressure on him to 'practice these every night' and have them committed to memory was making him sick - really, really sick. We're talking night terrors at least 5 nights out of each week, migraine headaches, and weight loss - Luke lost 20% of his body weight in 1st grade. By the time his problems started up again in fall of 2nd grade, after taking the summer off, I didn't care so much about how many sight words he had memorized, I just wanted him to stop feeling bad.

But, because his teacher had this new research, I put aside my education, all I was taught about how kids learn in many different ways, everything I had experienced in learning to write myself - I used inventive spelling until at least 3rd grade, and I'm one of the best spellers I know - and allowed her to persuade me that this decision about my son's learning was for the best.

Needless to say, it was the wrong decision. And now, happily, we've rectified it.

What matters more than children's ability to spell each word properly is fostering their creative spark, the one that will get them interested in lifelong writing and reading. As a homeschooler, Luke reads voraciously, and spelling doesn't hinder him from reading books, graphs, selected Newsweek and newspaper articles, even books written for adults. (A fact that I'm sure confounds teachers everywhere - how can an 8 year-old kid read at a high school level, but be unable to spell!)

Recently I decided to look up this research and see it for myself. Here is what I found: an article which 'critiques' inventive spelling. My reading of it gives only one valid (from the author's point of view, anyway) criticism, that teachers do not have enough time in the day to decode children's inventive spelling. And, my thought on that is: some things you just can't rush, and one of them is written communication.

But what really galls me is the author's position that there is only one method by which children will learn to spell, and write, correctly, and this is phonics. He puts the fear of God into parents that should their children be exposed to "Whole Language" (in quotes, of course, like any radically ludicrous idea) they will suffer from an inability to write or spell, pretty much ever.

Next, I wandered down to the bottom of the page and clicked the 'home' link; it brought me here, to the home of The National Right to Read Foundation. And, hey ho, guess what they're selling? Yep, phonics stuff. Their mission statement reads, in part, "Explicit and systematic instruction in phonics is a non-negotiable component of comprehensive reading instruction." The italics are theirs, showing how very much they want to drive home this point.

Now, I can see the value of some phonics instruction, for some kids. But to state that phonics is non-negotiable, even for kids (like mine) who learn, as it were, by osmosis, that statement is a death sentence: learn these rules, or you'll never learn to read. It's simply not true, as many thousands of kids are learning the hard way.

Why not expose kids to both phonics and whole language? That way, if they learn better one way than the other, at least they'll still learn. Kids don't need to memorize sight words to read, and Luke is a living example of this.

As a wise yoga instructor I know says, "Take what you need, and leave the rest."

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Lately, I haven't had enough pictures up, so today I decided to remedy that by sharing a few from a recent walk.

We've had crazy balmy weather, and with Ben around too, it seemed like the perfect day to get out, the 4 of us together.

From Drop Box

From Drop Box

We were fascinated with the creek, and the boys kept tossing in snowballs and running downstream to watch them drift. Such a simple, old-fashioned kind of pastime!

From Drop Box

From Drop Box

From Drop Box

It was the kind of slow-paced, listening-and-looking walk that makes life worth living, and one I hope to do again soon.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


It looks like my computer time from here on out will be limited: we have an 8 year-old author in the house.

After years of avoiding even the slightest whiff of writing, Luke has started a book. On the computer. Because I suggested it!

I think that what this means is, he has mostly gotten "school" out of his system - he had to take a long break from any writing except of the briefest kind, like holiday and birthday wish lists or notes to his favorite Harry Potter characters.

The book itself, "The Defeat of Chairman Drek," all one page of it so far, is a corker, which I think can be expected from a child who has spent years absorbing the conventions of writing through reading. Luke's dialogue exchanges, settings, plot and characters - taken from a video game (of course) - are pretty good, kind of stoic and adventuresome and read like, well, a real book. He has figured out a way to be as eloquent on paper as he is verbally, and seeing how he structures his writing is like looking at how his mind works from another angle.

We do have some confusing exchanges, though, with questions such as, 'Mom, where's the little two dots thing that you use?' or 'I can't find the thing that separates the ideas but keeps the same sentence.' Or, 'where's the two lines that mean somebody is talking?'

The one frustration I've felt is over Luke's inability to let something be misspelled, even for a few minutes. He hates inventive spelling, and just can't abide those little red lines underneath the words - and I can't figure out how to shut off the spell-checker so that he can write in peace! He loses thoughts and phrases while trying to figure out how to spell, rather than letting this be a 'draft' and sorting out the spelling later. My heart goes out to him, my young perfectionist.

For the most part, though, it's kind of cool having a young writer in the house, and his ideas and enthusiasm amaze me.

Even though I don't have the computer to myself anymore.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Eeyore-Tigger Energy Level Spectrum

My two boys couldn't be more different in terms of their energy levels; Owen operates at Tigger speed most of the time, whereas Luke is more of an Eeyore kind of kid.

Since I tend towards Eeyore myself, especially before noon, it can be quite a challenge to satisfy Owen's need for activity, balanced with Luke's need for peace and quiet - and my need for this, too.

We've figured out a way that, most days, keeps everyone happy. We have the luxury of coming up with our own schedule almost every weekday, so most mornings, while Luke wants to read and I'm still bleary, we break out manipulatives for Owen. His favorites are:

- Play dough, with cookie cutters, scissors, rolling pins, popsicle sticks, Mr. Potato Head pieces...

- Goop - one part water to two parts cornstarch, hand-mixed; we add more of one or the other to change the consistency. This stuff is addicting!

- Scissors and glue, along with construction paper for cutting and gluing

- A shallow pan full of mixed beans, scoops, and little action figures. While I hemmed and hawed about using beans for play instead of food, we've kept these same beans for more than 5 years, with good hand-washing afterwards - they are good fun and, like goop, addicting because they feel so good in your hands.

Long about 11 or so, we eat because Owen has exhausted whatever morning activity we came up with. Then, after lunch when Luke and I are more or less 'ready for the day,' we do something more active. This can range from a couple solid hours of outside play, to a library or indoor park day trip or play date, to chores or active games like Hullabaloo, or just dancing to fun, favorite tunes.

Usually, several hours' active fun will get Owen to a quieter place, allowing Luke and I to read, write, and play word or math-type games while Owen looks at books or plays with toys.

My favorite part of this little routine is, Luke enjoys the more active stuff and the manipulatives as much as Owen enjoys the books, games, and quieter parts of our day - the trick is to catch them both at their best moments.

I think they are the better for learning to accommodate each others' needs - and from being exposed to activities to which they might not naturally be drawn. They are really each others' perfect complement.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Winter Respite

From winter 08 09

Rare is the February day when it's nice enough to be out without hats on - we took advantage of the 50-degree weather today!

From winter 08 09

The guys built a fort, by hollowing out the snow mountain we've been building up since December. And I indulged in a childhood passion:

From winter 08 09

I wandered the woods behind our house, listening to the trickle of the brook there, checking out deer tracks, feeling the sun on my face.

From winter 08 09

From winter 08 09

That all this is within sight of our back yard makes me feel so grateful; that I can visit quietly, alone, now and then is a special treat.