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On digital education

No matter which publications you read, you’ve probably come across a fair number of articles expounding the virtues of online and computer-based education, and probably just as many bemoaning the ineffectiveness of digital education. Since I started homeschooling, I’ve had the opportunity to work with kids both in real world classes and online, and it occurs to me that neither side is right.

The Arguments

Proponents of digital education make some very good points about what the medium offers:

  • The ability for anyone, anywhere to access high-quality education
  • The ability for students to be able to move at their own pace rather than being hampered by slower learners
  • The availability of esoteric learning to anyone who wants to access it

From the perspective of enrolling my own homeschooled children in online courses, I would add:

  • Freedom for unusual learners to take part in classrooms that require fewer real-world social skills
  • Ability for children to connect with non-local children who have similar interests

Digital education doubters also make good points:

  • The best, deepest educational experiences stem from social connections as well as access to information
  • There is no quality control online so much of what passes as education doesn’t meet the barest minimum standards
  • Automated digital learning often passes children to the next level when they haven’t achieved mastery of the previous level
  • Education can’t be quantified
Athena's logo

I have been enjoying teaching literature and etymology at Athena’s, an online school for gifted homeschoolers. I’d never be able to put together enough students in my town to carry a multi-age class in etymology, but online, I meet weekly with a pack of enthusiastic, word-crazy kids.

Digital education won’t save us, but…

I actually agree completely with the digital education doubters: Digital education is not the answer to all of our educational woes. We need well-educated, well-respected teachers who are paid well and given ample opportunity to continue their education throughout their careers. We need a variety of types of schools for different types of learners, and these schools need to be clean, well-stocked, happy places where everyone actually wants to be. Human beings are social animals, and we need education to reflect that part of our nature.

On the other hand, digital education is, in fact, filling needs that real-world education has not fulfilled, especially for children. First of all, our education system—not just public schools but also private—tends to focus on the broad middle of the spectrum. Educational institutions can’t serve every child’s needs; they are designed to fit some chunk of the spectrum. Private schools, at least, can admit this fact and cater to certain types of learners, or certain types of families. But we have charged our public schools with the seemingly unattainable goal of serving every child’s needs.

Digital education helps to make that goal a bit more attainable. Children who are advanced in a subject can take online classes to learn more advanced material than their physical world teachers are able to teach. They can also find communities of learners who are like them—each child is unusual in his or her own environment, but on the Internet, just one of a crowd.

Children who are struggling also benefit from digital education. Children who require more repetition in math, for example, can get that repetition in a math program geared toward their needs. Children who need more instruction in reading can practice with modern tools that help them progress more quickly.

Digital education also democratizes education. It used to be that your zip code pretty much determined your prospects. It is still the case that your zip code pretty much determines the test scores at your physical world school, but it doesn’t have to hold back a student who wants to access higher learning anymore. Digital education has made learning available to all, even the many who don’t yet know it exists.

Change can be uncomfortable

kid with computer

Kids anywhere can come together to learn subjects they choose from enthusiastic teachers.

Digital education does the same thing for learning as digital media has done for information. Digital media took the power from the large media power brokers and gave it to everyone. Your blog could end up being as influential as a city newspaper. Digital education has similarly spread education to the many. Where before you had to have the connections and the money to access education in esoteric subjects, now you can interact with others across the world and learn about subjects that used to be obscure.

None of this means that the digital education doubters are wrong. Digital education is not going to solve the fact that a high school in Oakland has no toilet paper, or that an elementary school in Mobile is staffed by teachers who don’t know its from it’s. I like to think of digital education as filling in gaps rather than replacing the structure. If our brick and mortar education system is the structure of the log cabin, digital education is the mud we use to make sure that a cold wind doesn’t come in through the cracks.

We’re in an exciting period of infancy in education, and no one promised that rebirth would be comfortable.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

Parenting in a striving culture

The challenge

I have been honored to have my blog featured for some years now in the Santa Cruz Parent newsletter. Parmalee always links to such interesting information and asks such insightful questions. This week, she posed this one:

I listened to an Australian mother recount her adventures in learning how parents in different cultures raise children. Especially interesting was her visit to a Fiji Island where an elderly grandmother was raising 9 assorted child relatives while the parents were off working and sending money home. She sat inside her one room house watching tv while the children played outside, settling their squabbles themselves, never asking or expecting an adult to intervene. At night they shared a couple of mattresses. I figure that’s at least 4 or 5 to a mattress. Now you wouldn’t find that approach in Santa Cruz where we tend to hover, guide and structure a little more. Is there a message in here?

This is one I just can’t let go, as it touches on a subject near and dear to my heart: the effects of modern culture on our health, happiness, and success.

I hear it from all sides: People want to adopt another culture’s food, religion, or child-rearing because their own seems so inadequate.

We’re strivers

Multitasking mom

The modern striver mom—I attempted to find out where this image comes from so I could credit it, but apparently every mommy blog in the universe has used it without crediting it! Thanks to the artist, in any case.

Striving for a better life is one of the fundamental reasons for humans’ success. In always trying to find something better, humans have done wonderful things. We have created lives in places like the U.S. that are devoid of any of the fight for survival that traditionally was part of the human experience, and still is in many places in this world.

But contemporary Americans have this urge to think that amidst our success we’ve missed out on some fundamental key to health and happiness. I think this is a result of our need to strive for more. If our culture tells us to keep going for more, better, deeper, faster, stronger… how do we know when we’ve gotten there?

Where we are

And let’s admit this: We’ve gotten somewhere. If you time-traveled Ponce de Leon and showed him our lives, with our big, strong bodies, ability to thrive without hard physical labor, and knowledge of how to cure disease, isn’t it possible he’d think that we have, in fact, found some version of the fountain of youth?

A fair amount of sociological research is being done lately by examining trends on Google, so I’m going to start there. When I type “famous Fijians,” here’s what I get:

famous Fijians

I truly do value singing, great food, pithy sayings, and art (though I admit I have nothing to say about rugby). However, I will say this: Fijians may be happy, well-fed, and artistic, but they aren’t known for raising kids who go off to advance human society in terms of science, technology, or philosophy.

Which cultures are doing this? Largely the ones that are currently so dissatisfied with how they’re raising our children. Hm… So we’re dissatisfied with our parenting culture, yet our parenting culture is what created the people who invented this keyboard I’m typing on and the Internet we’re communicating through. Those ill-parented children invented the medicine that has kept me alive, when in a traditional society I would certainly have died by now of disease or in childbirth.

This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with Fijian or any other more traditional culture, but it does mean that theirs is fundamentally different from ours. Our children eating their inadequate modern diet, speeding around in their fast-moving vehicles, and living their “meaningless” modern lives are the same ones who are:

  • curing cancer (which we wouldn’t worry so much about if we were dying at 25 in childbirth or at 50 of disease)
  • inventing agricultural technology (to feed the masses of humans we’re keeping alive with modern medicine)
  • inventing entertainment devices (which we now have time for due to other advances)

We live in a culture that promotes striving, and this has paid off. Striving cultures throughout human history have built an amazing body of knowledge and skill, from ancient scholars in Mali and Egypt to scientists, technologists, and academics in the modern developed world.

Why we’re dissatisfied

It’s hard to live in a striving culture. We have time to worry about things that someone trying to scare up her next meal can’t even begin to care about. I, for example, look in the mirror and worry about my wrinkles. I know this is silly—I know that in emotionally wiser societies, wrinkles are cherished as a sign that you are now ready to support the younger generation with your wisdom. But worry I do, because I live in a striving society and one of the things we’re striving for is beauty and continued youth.

But when I read about people wanting to pick and choose the positive things about traditional cultures and impose them on ours, I can’t help but think that they’re going about it all wrong.

What we want from those cultures is something that is sitting right in front of us, waiting for us to recognize it: We want our kids to be happy, grow up healthy with strong friendships and family bonds, and live meaningful lives. But we don’t have to deny the fundamental good aspects of our culture in order to achieve those goals.

From Fiji to California

Here’s what I take away from that Fijian grandmother: I am aware that helicopter parenting can be damaging to kids, and I try not to do it. But when I’m not paying direct attention to my kids, I’m not (usually) sitting in front of the TV with my feet up. My kids see me striving, they see me taking part in our Maker culture, they see me taking part in discussions with friends and family about what it means to be a citizen of our modern world and how to be a good parent within our context.

And when my kids aren’t hanging out outside (which is important!), they are also taking part in our striving culture, hopefully getting the best of it while learning to resist its negative influences.

Healthy parenting, in our culture, requires that we build on our successes, while at the same time try to improve how we’re parenting in order to do better.

It’s a tall order, but that’s life in a striving culture. If you’d rather your children grow up to be happy consumers, best you hope that some of the rest of us are raising our children to be strivers. Those are the people who are going to cure ebola, slow global warming, and yes, create new and better entertainment options for when we’re grandmas and we want to spend (some of) our time with our feet up!

Posted in Avant Parenting, Culture Critic, Santa Cruz.

Halloween sad-face

When raising children there are those milestones you look forward to, and then there are the ones that pass a bit more poignantly. When your children reach the teen years, it seems, you start getting more and more of those poignant ones!

This year marks the official end of our family trick-or-treating. Insert sad pumpkin face here.

Sad pumpkin

The saddest jack-o-lantern. We did a science experiment one year where we studied the decay of a carved and uncarved pumpkin.

For years, we’ve had a tradition that I have loved: We go out with the kids and neighbors, and trick-or-treat on our unlit, sidewalk-less little street where over half of the homeowners pointedly do not put on their outside lights.

Why do we trick-or-treat here rather than driving to the very fun neighborhood just up the hill? I’ll send you to a six-year-old blog post to answer that question in detail. The short answer is that Halloween on our little street makes me feel like we’re living in the close-knit, small-town neighborhood I grew up in. We’re not: On my old street, we knew everyone. Now, though we know many of our neighbors, we certainly know fewer than half by name. But on Halloween, all the modern barriers break down. By tradition, the adults start out with a wine glass in hand and get refills from houses we stop at with the kids. The kids get to visit many fewer houses than possible because of all the adult gabbing, but on the bright side, there are so few kids trick-or-treating that each house tries to off-load lots of candy into their bags.

So, back to the sad pumpkin-face. Our 15-year-old really is too old for trick-or-treating, and he already went to his Halloween party. He’s hoping, I’m sure, to score a little candy here and there, but if he wants candy he’ll just go out and buy candy that he actually likes. Our 11-year-old—now a middle schooler—has been invited to a party in a much more lively neighborhood on Halloween.

However, there are a few perks to the modern neighborhood where people don’t live by the old rules. One of our neighbors today sent a note to our neighborhood email list and made an offer: Not only will they be open for candy for the kids, not only will they have wine flowing for the parents… they will even welcome adults without kids for a spot of socializing.

I plan to take them up on their offer. It’ll be so sad to miss walking down our dark street at night. I have to admit, however, that I might stop off at a few houses just to say hi. And perhaps, to suggest that neighborhood block party we always talk about but never get around to.

Maybe, if I feel really sentimental, I’ll carve the pumpkin that my 15-year-old hasn’t gotten around to carving. There it sits on our steps, a natural pumpkin face surrounded by his sister’s carved ones. It’s a sign of the times.

Next thing I know, they’ll be in college and I’ll be wondering where the years went.



And for your viewing pleasure, my favorite spooky black cat photo. That’s Nisene sitting next to a dewy spider web.

Posted in Avant Parenting.

You’re not the boss of me!

There is one phrase that kids in my part of the world inevitably seem to say—usually sometime around 6 or 7:

“You’re not the boss of me!”

The first time one of my children said it to me, I was a bit taken aback. At that point, most of his verbal style had come from his parents, and we had certainly never said such a thing. In fact, we had never heard any adult say that phrase or anything in that actual grammatical construction.

BossThink about it: In English, we hardly ever use the possessive form “noun of me”—we use “my noun.” So the natural way of saying “you’re not the boss of me” in English would be, “you’re not my boss.”

If one of my children had said that to me, I wouldn’t have been startled at all. In fact, they may have heard me say such a thing to them!

But “you’re not the boss of me”—that exact set of words—seems to be ubiquitous amongst American children. At some point, each child says that to a parent, to the point that parents can make each other laugh by quoting it at each other. If a parent says, “You’re not the boss of me!” we know they are imitating a kid.

So this means that kids have their own grammatical construction that, I’m guessing, gets passed from kid to kid, never being used by an adult in their hearing. (Except, perhaps, when they overheard their parents mocking them, which we hope never happens because we hope that our children don’t actually know how funny we find them, right?)

Perhaps “you’re not the boss of me” is kid-specific speech: like knock-knock jokes and fart jokes, meaningful only during some specific developmental period.

OK, maybe not the fart jokes.

Posted in Avant Parenting.

The comfortable closets we live in

Sometimes advocating for something you believe in can mean stepping out of a very comfortable closet that you’ve spent much of your life in. In my case, I was so comfortable, I didn’t even notice that I’d locked myself in the closet till I had children. My particular closet is the one that we hide in when we’re afraid of pointing out our own differences from the norm. It’s a very, very comfortable closet, but usually a solitary one.

Since the sixties, however, understanding has been growing that people sometimes need to seek others who share some aspect of their life experiences in order to learn more about themselves.

Here I am in paragraph three, and I’m still enjoying the comfort of my closet, so I guess I should just out with it! Once I had children, I started to notice how parenting, education, and healthcare resources were all set up to satisfy the needs of the many, but there was a group of few whose needs were not being served well: that group of kids who have been given the unfortunate label of “gifted.”

My discomfort with the word, and with even pointing out differences in intellectual ability, is deeply ingrained, pounded into my psyche by years of cultural pressure. If a mom says they’re choosing a new school because their daughter is an avid volleyball player and the new school has a good coach, we think that’s completely reasonable. If a mom says they’re choosing a new school because the current one doesn’t offer advanced enough education, suddenly she’s a) bragging, b) being pushy, and c) probably deluded about her son’s intellectual ability in the first place.

That’s how it was when I was growing up in the 70’s midwest, and that’s pretty much how it is for kids across the US now. There are some positive changes. For one, I stuck my neck out and typed the dreaded word “gifted” into Google and found out that I share my closet with all sorts of parents I’d never noticed. They, too, are wondering if they can figure out a way to save their kids from the boredom and self-hatred that our emphasis on not pointing out differences in intellectual needs has led to. We parents have come up with a variety of solutions, from educating teachers, to fixing our local schools, to joining national organizations, to homeschooling. But the thing we have in common is that we have reluctantly come out of the closet in order to advocate for our kids.

Parenting is a balancing act between supporting our children and also letting them go to soar or fall as they need to.

Parenting is a balancing act between supporting our children and also letting them go to soar or fall as they need to.

Pretty much the only time I feel like writing on this subject is when someone asks me to; in this case, I’m joining other bloggers in Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop. Hoagies’ is one of the first stops that parents new to giftedness make on the Internet. Carolyn K, who runs the site, is one of the pioneers of online gifted advocacy. She’s one of those people who decided to throw open the closet door while the rest of us were just trying to get comfortable and not make waves.

Like all minorities, gifted kids need their advocates. Schools are not set up to fulfill the needs of unusual learners. Parenting manuals get it all wrong when it comes to parenting intense, unusual children. Doctors, therapists, and other professionals get no training in the needs of their gifted patients. Pretty much everyone assumes that if your child taught herself to read and is quick in math, you’ve got nothing to worry about. But of course, just like everyone else, gifted children have their own challenges that, while sometimes different from the norm, still deserve the attention and support of the adults around them.

We parents are drawn to trying to fulfill our own children’s needs, but everything we do to make their lives better helps advocate for the wider community. I am deeply indebted to Hoagies‘, SENG, my gifted homeschooling group, Great Potential Press, my state and national advocacy groups, and probably other organizations I am forgetting to name. All of us who have stepped tentatively out of our comfortable closet improve the lives of gifted children everywhere.

giftedadvocacyThis post is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted blog hop. Gifted advocacy takes place in many places. From schools to homeschool groups, from our houses of worship to the YMCA and JCC, from the grocery store to the family gatherings… we are Gifted Advocates everywhere, and at every age.

Posted in Avant Parenting, Psychology.

A grown-up Harry Potter for me and you

Some years ago my husband was reading a book he’d bought on the basis of a good review. He was sitting in his chair chuckling, and occasionally he would say, “You have to read this!” and then “I mean it, you’ve really got to read this!”

“OK, dear,” I said, and back to my own book.

Then I did. The book was The Magicians by Lev Grossman. After I finished it I was hanging out with my sister and she said something like, “Oh, my book club read the greatest book!” and I answered, “I just read the greatest book, too!” And it turned out to be one and the same.

Harry Potter for grownups! Put the kids to bed early and enjoy.

Harry Potter for grownups! Put the kids to bed early and enjoy.

The Magicians has now morphed into a trilogy, the final episode published last month, and it’s one that I think every parent who was jealous of their kids for having Harry Potter just has to read. Remember how reading Harry Potter with your kids (or in my case, listening to the wonderful audiobooks) made you wistful for how the Narnia series really didn’t cut it once you put them side-by-side? Harry Potter let kids be real kids. They did real stuff that was not in the least allegorical. They lived in a world that was tactile and dirty and complex.

All we got as kids was weak Christian allegory. (Apologies if you still love Narnia, but reading it as an adult killed all my affection for it!)

The disappointing thing about Harry Potter, from the adult point of view, is that because it’s a series for kids, it does have to stay within the kids’ world experiences. There are no great revelations, no deep learning that happens in that series. The kids have adventures and eventually they overcome the evil.

The end happily ever after et cetera.

The Magicians is Harry Potter for grown-ups. It opens when our “hero” (rather less heroic than Harry, even) stumbles his way into a college for magicians. He doesn’t even know that magic exists. He’s never done anything the least bit magical, yet they’ve been watching him and they want him. Why?

In Harry Potter that question gets answered, but Grossman’s books are for grown-ups. Questions don’t get answered; they just balloon and get overwhelming, then subside and let you get on with your life. Quentin, Grossman’s protagonist, stumbles through young adult life in an endearing and somewhat scary way. Quentin’s a thinker, and he lets you know why he makes the decisions he makes, but unlike in a children’s novel, it doesn’t all come together to make sense. It ends, but the ending is just the beginning of the rest of his life.

These are not books for kids, or even your teenagers. In fact, don’t let your teens read these books. They’re yours. I mean it. I think you have to have lived long enough to realize that you don’t really know what the hell you’re doing in life in order to appreciate these books.

I love this piece by Grossman on how he found himself as a writer. I think Grossman does a great job of summing up why his books are so great to read:

“Fantasy is sometimes dismissed as childish, or escapist, but I take what I am doing very, very seriously. For me fantasy isn’t about escaping from reality, it’s about re-encountering the challenges of the real world, but externalized and transformed. It’s an emotionally raw genre — it forces you to lay yourself open on the page. It doesn’t traffic in ironies and caveats. When you cast a spell you can’t be kidding, you have to mean it.”

It’s clear that Lev Grossman means it. Go read these books. Ignore your children for a while. Really. And don’t let them read over your shoulder, as my 11-year-old attempted to do last night. She could see I had a good read, and she was jealous.

Let them be jealous. Let them have Harry.

We have Quentin.

Posted in Avant Parenting, Culture Critic.

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Teach your children well

I joined an auditorium full of parents and teachers last week to hear psychologist Madeline Levine talk about where we’re going wrong in our education and our parenting.

For me personally, the auditorium full of people was like a village meeting. I saw and spoke to parents from almost every school my children have been to, from preschool on up to high school. And though we think of Santa Cruz County as a relatively populous place, when it comes to parents we’re truly a small town. My son’s current homeschool program teacher knew the preschool parents who in turn knew the mom from the private school who in turn knew other homeschooling friends.

Homeschoolers ahead of the curve?

Teach your children wellBut on to Levine’s talk: As I sat listening in my little pod of homeschoolers, I thought, we are definitely not her target audience. Everything she said was part of why we are homeschoolers. For example, she pointed out that our education system forces students to think that in order to be successful adults, they have to be good at everything. On the contrary, she pointed out, “You don’t have to be good at everything, you go to your strong side,” illustrating it with the fact that she always has to ask for help from the audience when figuring out percentages. This is a fact of human development that drives many a student to homeschooling: our educational system makes them feel like failures for their weaknesses, and doesn’t offer them the opportunity to build on their strengths.

Another thing Levine pointed out is that plenty of parents are dissatisfied with their local schools, but they always say there is no community support. But, she says, when she’s signing books, “Everybody in line says I’m the only one in my community.” Again, we homeschoolers have found each other largely because homeschooling is nearly impossible to do well without community. School parents are given a pre-formed community, but they are seldom forced to take advantage of it the way we are.

Another point Levine made was allowing children to have “successful failures”—failures that teach them to reach higher to attain their goals. She points out that today’s “helicopter parents” try to pad their children’s lives so that all they do is succeed. The problem is, those children eventually leave home, and are often devastated by their first small failure because they have no experience in it. This is a situation that is much easier to bring about in homeschooling. In school, if a child fails the consequences can be relatively severe (from their point of view), such as a bad grade or in some schools, losing privileges like recess. In homeschool, we can allow failure in a more natural way. My son, for example, had a bad experience with an online class where he didn’t pay enough attention to the way the grades were being calculated. He ended up doing pretty poorly, even though he’d turned in good work. He learned, with no longterm consequences, to pay more attention to things like due dates and late penalties.

She also spoke about how public education has not kept up with our changing workforce. Our public education system was designed to produce dependable factory workers, people who can follow directions and produce consistent results. Our current work world is quite different; factory workers have lost their jobs to automation. Levine points out, “Every school should have project based learning because it’s collaborative – in the real world we’re collaborating all the time.” Again, this is something that homeschoolers are able to do so much more readily. Since there are no grades and it’s all about enjoyment while learning, collaborative projects are natural to incorporate.

What we really want for our kids

Levine reminded the audience that when she asks parents what they want for their kids, they almost never mention income or status. “We want to raise people who are happy and find meaning in life,” Levine reminds us. And our educational system simply is not geared to do that. As a psychologist, she is seeing more kids who are stressed out about school. In the past, she said, kids would suffer from other life stresses—a divorce or bullying, for example. But now she gets kids who get a B and worry that they won’t get into Harvard and their lives will be ruined.

Many homeschoolers are what we call “public school refugees,” people who didn’t come to homeschooling on principle but instead because they were saving their children. I have known former school children who came to homeschooling after attempted suicide, devastating bullying from peers, debilitating pressure from schools to raise their test scores, and absolute loss of motivation and love of learning.

I always hold out hope that the homeschooling movement will get serious attention from people who make educational decisions in our country, but I know that often we are dismissed as ignorant or worse. It’s heartening to know that people like Levine are coming at it from the opposite direction, giving legitimacy to basic principals that homeschoolers have been acting on for years.

Further reading:

Posted in Avant Parenting, Education, Homeschooling.

Back to home/school – vive la différence!

Another year, another set of decisions about education. When my son was going into kindergarten, we thought we’d choose a school and that would be it until 6th or 8th grade. Ah, doesn’t the universe have a way of making a mockery of everything we know?

I took this photo for an article I wrote about my daughter's choosing to go to school...for an unschooling magazine! Amazing how life changes and we parents just have to roll with it.

I took this photo for an article I wrote about my daughter’s choosing to go to school…for an unschooling magazine! Amazing how life changes and we parents just have to roll with it.

My older child has attended:

  1. 1 preschool
  2. 1 private kindergarten
  3. 1 charter school
  4. 2 private elementary schools
  5. 1 middle school public homeschool program
  6. 2 online schools
  7. 1 high school public homeschool program
  8. community college both online and in person

My younger child has attended:

  1. 2 preschools
  2. 1/3 year kindergarten at a private school
  3. 1/3 year kindergarten in a public homeschool program
  4. 4 more years in that homeschool program
  5. 1 online school
  6. 1 neighborhood public elementary school

No wonder I sometimes feel weary when people ask me about their own educational choices. What have I NOT tried?

What I’ve come to realize is that education is always a year-by-year decision. Even when parents think their child will stay in the same school forever, they probably face a coming year with some qualms. Is this the right educational choice? What if it’s not a good fit with the teacher? What if my child is more interested in after school sports than math? Would we all be happier unschooling? Is there a better school, with better teachers and perhaps better friends for my child? Am I screwing up my child’s future??

Well, I at least have decided to let go of that last one. I’m doing what I can to create the right education for each child. This year, our choices for each child are radically different:

The fifteen-year-old is just loving being a homeschooler. He loves the hours (though he’s not a late sleeper). He loves the flexibility which allows him to pursue his passion, computer science, with an almost single-minded fervor. He really likes his public homeschool program, where he has met some good friends and is reminded that it takes all kinds to make up a community. He enjoyed his community college class last spring and is going for more this year. He really, really loves not having to do PE.

The eleven-year-old, my original homeschooler, decided last year that she wanted to try school. She was in sixth grade, but it was Middle School Lite because our neighborhood elementary had two self-contained sixth grade classrooms. That meant that she was in a school with a total of less than 300 kids, in a room with the same 31 kids and the same teacher each day. This year? We looked at all sorts of options, including homeschooling, a small charter school, and our district junior high, and she has decided to go for the big guns and attend a 700+ student middle school in a neighboring district. Today, in advance of the first day of school, she spent over an hour poring over their lunch menus, their student newspaper, and anything else she could find online.

I hope that each of my children excels in the environments we’ve chosen. I think my family is a clear example of why you simply can’t say that there is one right way to educate children. Who would have believed that I would become a committed homeschooler? Who would have believed that my child who couldn’t last a full day of kindergarten simply loved public school last year? Who would have believed that my compliant “good student” would become a happy homeschooler-bordering-on-unschooler?

I read with great interest articles by people on all sides of the education debate about what works for students. But if there is one thing that turns me off, it’s someone who refuses to acknowledge that the most important thing our educational system needs is flexibility and choice. You can cite all the test scores and studies you want—what I know is what I have seen with my own kids and with every other family I know. The safe option, the easy option, and the obvious option is not always the right option. My two kids, born of the same parents and raised in the same house, are going two very different directions.

May they both thrive!

Vive la différence!

Posted in Avant Parenting.

The Feminist Homeschooler

If you are like I was before I started homeschooling, your view of homeschooling moms goes something like this:

  • They are separatist Christians
  • They homeschool because their husbands or churches tell them to
  • They are probably not terribly well-educated themselves
  • They use Bible-based curriculum that doesn’t teach children the whole truth about the world
  • They are raising their children to be subservient girls and dominant boys

feminismThere are certainly some homeschooling moms who fit this description, though I’ve never met one who fits it to a T. However, those of you who know my homeschooling community know what kind of a shock I was in for when I became the world’s most reluctant homeschooler after my daughter didn’t take to kindergarten.

The homeschooling moms I’ve met (yes, they are mostly moms, but more on that in a moment) are as varied in background, theology, and political views as the general population. (Though of course, I will admit that where I live, conservative homeschoolers are just about as populous as conservative voters, which is to say I’ve met very few…)

How would I describe homeschooling moms?

  • From deeply religious to lackadaisically atheist
  • Committed to educating their children as best they can but from within their own definition of what education is (which varies greatly from family to family)
  • Committed to raising children who are comfortable with themselves and have learned how to figure out what they want and how to get it (whether or not society defines what they want as “success”)

So I can say that the public perception of homeschoolers, at least where I live, is pretty far off. When a group of homeschoolers gets together to talk about how they educate their kids, you find out that in the generalities they may seem similar, but when you get down to specifics, each homeschool is as different as each child.

But there are some overwhelming similarities when you look through a gender-based lens:

  • Almost all of the full-time homeschooling parents are women
  • Most homeschoolers are growing up in two-parent, heterosexual households
  • Most of the homeschooling moms left careers to homeschool
  • Many of the moms still work part-time, but even those moms often seem to have changed careers so that their work is more compatible with homeschooling

So of course, seeing this as I started homeschooling, I wondered how to view this from a feminist perspective. Is this a throwback world where women are disregarding everything our mothers and grandmothers fought for? Or is this something new that only looks from the outside like a throwback?

I gave a talk on this topic at the HSC Conference a couple of years ago and recently at the DLC in Santa Cruz. The moms that came were the sorts of women that I have gotten to know during my homeschooling years: smart, committed to raising well-educated children, able to “think outside the box” as far as what education and success are. They are all the sort of homeschoolers that I respect and admire.

Yet many of us feel ambivalent about our choice to step back from a career to raise our children. Those of us who are still working while homeschooling know that clinging to our work (whether from financial or emotional necessity) can sometimes conflict with our success in homeschooling. We can feel uncomfortable being financially dependent on our husbands. We sometimes wonder whether our own education was wasted on us since we haven’t gone out and had fabulous careers to “justify” spending the money and time to educate us.

But all those fears and conflicts are more than canceled out by our real homeschooling experiences. Many women at my talks mentioned their own personal growth that has come from homeschooling, from needing to relearn things that were difficult the first time around to finding out new things about ourselves in the process of homeschooling.

Women also mention how important they feel that their influence is on their children. Their kids might not see a mom modeling the “independent woman” paradigm, but they do see their moms as strong leaders, caring community members, equal (though not “the same”) partners with their spouses, and lifelong learners willing to tackle pretty much anything. (How many of us thought that dissecting roadkill would be part of our adult lives?)

Homeschooling itself is conducive to raising feminist kids. Separated from oppressive school cultures that enforce clear gender roles, our kids develop in whatever direction feels right to them. So when you get together with a group of homeschoolers, you will often wonder at the genders of several of the children in the group – boys with long hair wearing capes, girls with short hair and not a shred of pink to be seen. And because they are homeschooling, their education will reflect their interests rather than some authority’s idea of what they should be interested in. This leads to young adults with a firm sense of identity.

Whether they call themselves feminists or not, many homeschoolers typify what a feminist is: someone who believes that all people should have the opportunity to express who they are without succumbing to society’s ideal for their gender.

And that gets back to the moms. Many of us made a choice to homeschool; some of us were forced due to circumstance. But once we start homeschooling, we realize that we have not taken a step back. We are just entering a period of reinvention in our lives. As one mom said, “When I left my job and started homeschooling, I had to reinvent myself. Once my children are grown, I will just reinvent myself again.”

That’s the spirit—the feminist homeschooler spirit!

Posted in Culture Critic, Homeschooling.

Imaginary friends

When my second child was a baby, I read somewhere that although imaginary friends are common for firstborns, they are much less common for subsequent children. The writer’s opinion on this phenomenon was that a) the older siblings teased the younger ones out of having imaginary friends, and b) the younger ones didn’t really need them, anyway.

That was all I needed to cement my resolve that if my second wanted to have imaginary friends, our family would welcome them with open arms!

Our first child’s first imaginary friend turned up one day when he was two. I noticed that he was holding something carefully pinched between his thumb and forefinger. The thing was very small… or invisible.

“What do you have there, Buddy?” I asked.

“This is Peter,” he said solemnly.


For a short time, our son transferred his invisible imaginary friend Peter to this figurine. Recently I was cleaning out toys to give away and found Peter… no way I could give him away!

We have no idea where he got the name Peter, as the crowd of friends that followed had rather more fanciful names: Seiterint, Peachwiss, Snakeless… His friends hung around for years. They were the source companionship at an age when he had trouble connecting with other kids, and a great source of family lore. We especially loved Seiterint, who lived on an island near Japan and who sometimes did naughty things in our household.

So we watched carefully for the arrival of our second child’s set of imaginary friends. As soon as we saw it, we had a heart-to-heart talk with her older brother, letting him know that older siblings were often the cause of kids being embarrassed about their imaginary friends, and this wasn’t going to happen. Given that at age 5 his imaginary life was still going strong, he became a willing participant.

Our younger child’s friends were complete different and just as wonderful in their own way. They grew out of her affection for a burpcloth that she carried around with her, so of course, the first one was named “Burp” — or, in her dialect, “Bup.” Burp soon acquired a host of companions all named Burp with added initials or last names. Burp lived in La Selva House, which is in Africa. Eventually, she decided that Africa was the next-door neighbor’s front yard.

I am glad that we were so successful in nurturing our second child’s imaginary friendships. Just like our son, her imaginary friends carried her through the years that she was developmentally out of step and didn’t connect with other kids. At the tail end of our son’s imaginary friendships (at least, that he told us about!), they even created a connection through their worlds. Our son had given his imaginary friends an imaginary airline, which he drew logos for and told stories about. Our daughter joined in, creating her own imaginary airline and offering us tickets and even issuing pilot licenses.

Both of my children now have healthy friendships with other [real] children. Although preschool teachers were always fretting about whether they would ever graduate past parallel play with kids their age, they eventually got it. But just as in other developmental areas, they were simply on a different developmental path. It’s hard when you’re a parent to withstand pressure from outside to mold your young children to social expectations. I will never forget the terrible feeling of my grandfather taking my blanky from me and saying I was too old for it — and will also never forget how my mother got it back to me later that day.

Imagination is one of the most wonderful things about childhood – before children are self-conscious enough to hide it, they can create the friendships they need, play out social scenarios, and incorporate fascinating details from the wider world into their own little lives.


blog_hop_aug14_gifted_friendships_smallHoagies’ Blog Hop August 2014: Gifted Friendships

Friendship. One word that has many meanings. For most kids, friends are those they play with. But for the gifted child, friendship is often far more than that. Gifted friendships can be more complex, more deep, and more difficult to find. Read more at Hoagies‘.

Posted in Avant Parenting, Psychology.