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The working homeschooling mom (or dad)

One of the top concerns I hear about homeschooling from potential homeschoolers is employment. The parent destined to be the primary homeschooler (usually the mom but more and more often the dad) is concerned about whether they will be able to continue working.

Suki and book

I wrote my first book while in the thick of homeschooling two kids.

The concern is an important one, and not just for the obvious reason. Yes, the loss of income can be difficult for homeschooling families. Sometimes there is already an unemployed or under-employed parent whose time will be better-used in homeschooling, but often families take a financial hit when they decide to homeschool.

But beyond the question of money is also the question of the primary homeschooler’s self-image and personal fulfillment. Working is often as much about personal goals as it is about finances. If you have built a career, leaving it behind can be personally damaging. Focusing on your children to the detriment of your feelings of fulfillment and self-worth does not lead to successful parenting, much less to successful homeschooling.

Luckily, homeschooling and career are not mutually exclusive. Lots of homeschooling parents work and homeschool successfully, though it always requires a certain amount of flexibility and compromise.

In my own case, I started with the benefit that my work had always been done from home on a flexible schedule. Before children, I worked as a freelance writer, graphic designer, online marketing consultant, and small publisher. Once I had children, and then once I started homeschooling, I found that I needed to make adjustments.

But although I started from a flexible work situation, the main reasons I succeeded in continuing my work were the help of friends and family.


I started a homeschool co-op with other moms and brought my computer to classes and meetings so I could work on the go.

There is no way I could have continued working without the support of my husband. We had agreed when the children were babies that he would be the primary parent in the evenings so that I could get work done, and once we started homeschooling we expanded our arrangement. After dinner I would go into my office and it would be “work time” for me. During this time I was able to write a book about homeschooling, a chapter book, and numerous articles.

The other major thing I did was to set up a variety of homeschooling support systems:

  • Kid exchange:
    I found friends who had children in a similar age range and who had similar needs. This wasn’t as hard as it sounds! We each would devise something we would do with our little pack of girls to give the others a morning off. For example, I live next to a redwood forest, so I led forest hikes and taught nature studies. Another mom was an excellent seamstress and taught sewing.
  • Paid care:
    I paid money to a babysitter when necessary. I didn’t really have to do this much after my daughter was about six, but it was an option I used.
  • Public resources:
    I registered both children in a public school homeschool program that offered a drop-off class day each week. You might not have this option in your area, but sometimes private schools offer this as an option, too. This program also led field trips, so the parents who lived near each other would sometimes offer to take each other’s kids on the field trips to give time to the other parents.
  • Cooperative homeschooling:
    I started a homeschool coop with other homeschoolers. We all taught classes there. Part of my job was to get wi-fi set up so that I could bring my computer and work while my kids were playing or in classes with other children.

Those were very, very busy years. That said, I worked a fair amount. I remember one day at my daughter’s gymnastics class I was worked very hard on a magazine article, sitting in the parent area with my computer.

At the end of class I looked up, and the mom next to me said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so focused on their work before!” It was a skill that I had to develop once I realized that I’d get very little quiet, focused time at home with no kids. But it worked out. As the kids have gotten older, of course, they have needed me less. Now I can put in something like a 2/3 workday, and actually spend evenings with my family!

Just like homeschooling itself, how you end up juggling work and your children will depend on your family’s needs, values, and interests. For more ideas, read my article “How do we get by? Homeschooling families talk about how to make ends meet.”

Posted in Homeschooling, Parenting.

Hanna, Homeschooler – Chapter 1

Hanna, Homeschooler

Click on the cover to read more about Hanna.

Below you will find the first chapter of my chapter book, Hanna, Homeschooler. I hope you enjoy it! Please feel free to leave comments below. You can purchase Hanna in e-book or paperback at and


Hanna sat in the window seat looking out at the grey morning. It was seven-thirty, and usually she wouldn’t be dressed yet. But she dressed for this morning.

The two girls across the street, first Kira and then Cassie, came out of their houses. They were right on time.

Kira and Cassie were going to the first day of school. Hanna wasn’t. She sat in the window seat, thinking about that.

Hanna had only moved into this house during the summer. A few months before, her dad had lost his job. Mom said Gram needed help with the big house now that Gramp was gone. So they moved from their cabin in the Sierra mountains to Central California, where Mom had grown up.

It was flat, and hot, and there were so many houses. They had left behind Hanna’s friend, Henry, and all the trees that Hanna knew like people.


Hanna sits in the window seat watching her neighbors go to the first day of school.

Hanna’s dad had been leaving home early to go to school. He was training to be a nurse, which Kira said was weird. Mom explained that being a nurse was a good job, but in the past, only women did it.

But Dad was doing it because he wanted to help people. Hanna didn’t think that was weird.

Kira and Cassie were different than any kids Hanna had known. Hanna wondered if they thought she was weird, too.

Kira and Cassie’s moms backed their cars into the street and were gone.

“What are you doing up so early, pumpkin?” Mom asked Hanna, coming up behind and kissing her head.

Hanna squirmed away.

“Uh-oh, the rare spiny pumpkin has come to our house again!” Mom said. “What do you see happening out there on those manicured lawns?”

“Kira and Cassie went to school,” Hanna said. “I wonder what they are going to do for the first day. What are we going to do today?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Mom said, stroking Hanna’s hair. “I’d like to do some baking.”

Hanna sighed. That didn’t sound like much of a plan.

Hanna’s mom was very busy with the baby, David, who was really not a baby anymore. He was born early and spent months inside an incubator getting big enough to come home, so Mom said he’d be like a baby a little longer than other kids.

David was almost two and he crawled almost as fast as Hanna could walk. Hanna’s mom said Gram’s house was a babyproofing nightmare. Gram fought with Mom about moving her knickknacks up out of the kids’ reach. Gram said her house was looking all disarranged.

When she thought Hanna wasn’t listening, Mom told Dad the house was like a dusty tschatschke shop. That word was pronounced “chach-kah.” That was Mom’s word for all Gram’s stuff. Gram didn’t like to get rid of anything.

Hanna liked Gram’s stuff—each thing had a story. And she liked the window seat where she could sit and see so much action.

Mom went off to dress David and Hanna wandered into Gram’s room.

Gram used to sleep in the big master bedroom upstairs where Mom and Dad were sleeping now, but she wasn’t so good with stairs now. Her room was back behind the living room and had wine-colored wallpaper with a flower pattern. Gram called it the “den,” which made Hanna think it used to be inhabited by lions. But Mom told her it used to be the TV room.

Gram had a TV in there, and it was always on, playing the weather.

“Hi Gram,” Hanna said from the doorway. Her parents had told her not to go in unless she was invited.

“Hannietta,” Gram said. She was sitting at her vanity so her reflection looked at Hanna. “Come in.”

Hanna sniffed as she entered the room. The whole house smelled like Gram, but it was strongest in this room. Dust, roses, and furniture polish.

Gram turned. She had a little object in her hand, which shook like she was cold. Hanna knew that Gram used to make beautiful things like the quilt on Hanna’s bed. Now her hands wouldn’t let her sew or knit anymore.

“You can help me with this, dear,” she said.

Hanna stood over her and looked down at the yellowed book on Gram’s vanity. It had pictures stuck on with little black corners, which was what Gram had in her hand. Hanna noticed that one corner was missing from around a photo of a smiling man in a uniform.

“It’s so hard for me to place these, now,” Gram said, letting Hanna take the corner from her hand. “Can you lick it and stick it on that corner?”

Hanna licked the back of the little corner and eased it onto the photo. She and Gram pressed down their fingers one on top of the other to stick it down.

“That’s Gramps,” she said to Hanna.

“Gramps?” Hanna was surprised. He was young and thin and had a full head of hair. The Gramps Hanna remembered was old and thin and quiet.

“Haven’t you seen my photos yet?” Gram answered. “Oh, I have so many. From when I was a child, when your grandfather and I married, when your mother was young.”

Gram pointed to the handsome young Gramps and a group shot of young men in uniform. “This was when Gramps went to war. Did you know he was a fighter pilot?”

Hanna shook her head.

“Oh, yes, he was a hero!” Gram exclaimed. “He went overseas and shot down enemy planes. Then his plane was shot down and we didn’t hear from him for two years.”

Gram’s face softened into that faraway look she got.

“His family and my family lived across the street from each other in Brooklyn, you know. In New York. We knew each other before we knew each other!”

Gram bubbled with laughter.

“We always knew each other’s business because from our living room you could see right into his. I remember the day the telegram came saying he was missing in action—the army didn’t know where he was, but they thought the Germans had probably caught him. That day I saw the telegraph boy go up the steps of his house and I ran across the street and was there before they’d even had a chance to read it. I can still hear his father reading that telegram, and his mother trying not to cry, and his little sister—that’s Aunt Molly—saying, What does it mean? What does it mean?”

Hanna considered this story.

“So Aunt Molly was a little girl?” she asked doubtfully. Aunt Molly had always seemed even older and stricter than Gram.

Gram bubbled with laughter again. “Why, yes, dear, she was nearly ten years younger than George. Haven’t you ever seen our family tree?”

“What’s a family tree?” Hanna asked.

“Let’s draw one!” a voice said cheerfully from the door. It was Mom, who’d been watching with David balanced on her hip. “Come on!”

Gram and Hanna followed Mom out of Gram’s bedroom.

Mom opened the cabinet in the dining room which she’d emptied of Gram’s stuff so she could keep homeschooling supplies.  She drew out an enormous roll of white butcher paper, placed David on the floor, and rolled it out. She fixed the paper at each end of the long dining room table with tape and then ripped off the roll.

Meanwhile, Gram had figured out what Mom was up to. She’d taken out Hanna’s bucket of markers. She wrote Rosa Weinstein in red at the top of the butcher paper and circled it. Next to that, she wrote Schmuel Schimmelfarb in blue. Gram’s letters were shaky like the scary letters on Halloween posters.

“Can you help me, Hannietta?” Gram asked. “Under Rosa, write 1884, and under Schmuel, write 1878.”


Hanna was surprised when lunchtime came. She and Gram had munched on apples and muffins while the family tree spread and grew down the paper so they had to connect some of the people with snaking long lines.

When she looked at it, Hanna did think it looked like a tree, with long, long roots. Gram could remember all the names and almost all the birthdates without looking at her book, but after they were done she got out her book and showed Hanna pictures of all these people who were related to Hanna. There were so many! And they came from countries in the world that didn’t even exist anymore.

After lunch, Mom printed out a map of Europe and Hanna outlined and shaded in where Austria-Hungary was when Rosa and Schmuel had left and come to America by ship. The ship only had sails and no motor! Then Hanna went outside to swing and climb the tree, while Mom and Gram helped David learn how to use the baby slide.

“Are you really so set on keeping her out of school?” Hanna heard Gram ask. “Do you really think she’ll learn what she needs to?”

Sometimes Gram and Mom talked grown-up talk that made Hanna feel like she was just a name on the family tree.


Later, when she was sure they were home, Hanna got permission to go across the street to see Kira and Cassie. She found them talking at Cassie’s swingset, looking serious and proud.

“My teacher’s name is Mrs. Conger,” Cassie said. “We made our handprints with finger paint and traced our names under them to put on the wall.”

Cassie, Hanna knew, was in kindergarten. She didn’t know how to read yet, but she was big and strong and Hanna liked her funny laugh.

“My teacher’s name is Mr. Greg,” Kira said. “My mom was afraid I wouldn’t like a boy teacher, but he’s so nice. And in first grade, we don’t have to take naps like kinders.”

“What did you do in school today?” Kira asked Hanna.

Hanna felt their curious eyes on her as she felt her face get hot.

“Oh, nothing,” she said. “We just baked muffins.”

hannagraduationPurchase Hanna in e-book or paperback:

Posted in Books, Homeschooling, Writing.

Goal-setting and young teens

We’re in the thick of homeschooling high school, with a junior getting serious about looking at college and next year’s freshman thinking she might go back to homeschooling. Thinking about homeschooling my younger child again sparked me to think about what we’ve done that’s successful, and what we might change.

Goal-setting helps kids understand that their education is for them, not for their parents!

Goal-setting helps kids understand that their education is for them, not for their parents!

Amidst the complexity of homeschooling high school, one success does stand out. I think it was at a homeschooling conference where I  heard the advice that young teens need to be taught goal-setting. At that point, my son was largely unschooling, following his own interests. He was doing great at that, but I knew that once he entered the high school years and what he did started to “count,” homeschooling might get more complicated.

So I made a decision (in fact, I set a goal!): Once a week we sat down together and went through a goal setting curriculum I’d found online. [Goal Setting for Students, in case you’re interested.]

The curriculum was not a great fit for homeschoolers. It was very school-focused, of course, and every time they used sports as an example in the text, my sports-averse son would swear it was the stupidest thing he’d ever done.

Focusing on goal setting at that age, however, turned out to be an incredibly important step in preparing my son for homeschooling high school.

Lesson #1: We set and meet goals all the time

This was the first thing my son and I took away from formal goal setting studies. It’s the most basic part of goal-setting, yet I realized personally that I had never been taught to do this in a formal way.

For my son, it was an introduction to meaningful reflection—the process of thinking about your thinking. [I wrote on this topic on my KidsLearn blog here.] This is not something that most teens do instinctively, so at first it’s a bit like being a kid walking in his dad’s shoes.

Lesson #2: Goals allow us to focus our actions and prioritize

If you never think formally about your goals, you can find yourself spending a lot of time spinning your wheels. The decisions we make on a daily basis reflect whether or not we are focused on our goals. Homeschooling high school offers many more choices than school does, so having specific goals allows students to make decisions about which direction to go.

Lesson #3: Big goals can be broken down into a series of steps

Big goals, which are often quite distant from a teen’s everyday life, can seem too complex. But when broken down into steps, big goals become more manageable. The path you have to take can also appear more flexible once you start seeing that each step can be modified according to current needs and desires.

Applying goal setting to homeschooling high school

Once we had the concept of goal setting down, we had the foundation to do the work that is now paying its dividends. We went over all the ways that our son could spend his high school years, and how each choice might apply to his eventual goal of making it to a good university.

Goal-setting needs to emphasize that there are many ways to get to any destination.

Goal-setting needs to emphasize that there are many ways to get to any destination.

It became very clear to him that his choices would have a direct effect on whether he meets his goals. And more importantly, it became clear to him that they were his choices, not his parents’. Once he stated his goals, it would be up to him whether he met the challenges facing him or not.

When kids attend a high school, their success depends in part on how self-motivated they are. But successful high school homeschooling requires self-motivation. At the time in life when their biology is telling kids to rebel against their parents and strike out on their own, it’s nearly impossible for a parent to “force” a teen into anything.

Once a teen has set his or her own goals, however, there is no forcing involved. The essential vocabulary of our conversations about school work has changed.

In a non-goal-setting household, a parent might say, “You have to do this or you’ll get a bad grade.” The threat of punishment in the form of grades is how the parent attempts to force compliance.

In a goal-setting household, a parent can say, “So what grade do you need to get in this class in order to meet your goal?” In this case, the student’s behavior is turned back to his or her own stated goals.

In a non-goal-setting household: “If you don’t do the work you need to do, I’m going to make you go back to school.”

In a goal-setting household: “You chose to homeschool so this is the path you’re taking. If you feel that was the wrong choice, should you reconsider school as an option?”

The word choices are only slightly different, but they always turn the decision-making back to the student and his or her goals. Conversations that might have turned immediately emotional and adversarial become productive conversations about goals and priorities.

Nothing in parenting is easily resolved; teens are going to argue, they are going to change their minds, and they are going to make mistakes. But getting goal-setting vocabulary into your homeschool in the early teen years can help students become more successful when independence is what they crave.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling, Parenting.

The back and forth we need

I’ve always been big on walking. I probably learned it from my parents. We lived on a dirt road at the edge of town. At the end of a long, hot summer day we would saunter out of our house and down the road, dogs at our heels, a string of cats following further behind. I don’t remember that much was said on these walks. We’d greet neighbors occasionally, or perhaps remark on the color of the sunset.

Later, I became a runner, and I ran religiously—perhaps compulsively—until various joints gave out in my thirties and I had to slow to a walk again.

We are only part of the way through Oakley’s book, but it’s turning out to be a good choice for a family read-aloud if you have teens who are starting to face difficult learning situations.

When my children were small, walking became a luxury. Neither child really enjoyed being in the stroller. As soon as they could walk, I had to slow down to toddler speed. For a while we had a golden age of swimming lessons—I could register them for lessons and pop off to the adult pool for a much-needed break. But for the most part I got little exercise.

My body rebelled. When the children were small, I remember scheduling an appointment with my doctor because I’d looked up my symptoms and found out I had leukemia.

“I’m happy to run blood tests,” my doctor said. “But I don’t think you have leukemia. I think you have children.”

I wish she had given me a simple prescription to cure what ailed me, but it took my back going out to get there. By the time my son was ten and my daughter was six, I was getting no walking time at all. I was in the most intense time of parenting a child with undiagnosed special needs. My husband was working over the hill,* coming home exhausted and irritable. I developed an excruciating pain in my hip.

(*That’s Santa Cruz-speak for working in Silicon Valley, which is a hair-raising mountain highway drive away from where we live.)

It turned out that the pain was being referred from a malformed spine, and there was only one treatment that worked to keep the pain at bay: walking.

I realized that the health of my family depended on my being able to get out on my own each morning, so my husband and I juggled schedules and made it happen. Soon after, he took the cue that we could juggle schedules again and find time for his bike riding. We both became healthier and happier people.

Research is showing from every which way that our bodies and minds need the repetitive back-and-forth of full-body exercise. Whether you walk, swim, bicycle, or (I’m suggesting this inspired by my daughter’s newest craze) pogo-stick, repetitive movement is a key part of mental and physical health.

Inspired by my inability to keep up with the Coursera course “Learning How to Learn,” I bought the book by Barbara Oakley that the course is based on. I figured I might not be able to keep up with the course, but if I put the book by our dinner table, I might get around to reading a bit out loud each evening.

Ah, the days when I not only had the time to run, but also intact tendons!

Ah, the days when I not only had the time to run, but also intact tendons!

OK, I’m going to admit that we are a highly imperfect homeschooling family. Our reading has been—I’ll put this nicely—sporadic. However, during tonight’s reading I moved into familiar territory as she talked about how sometimes, what you need to do in order to solve a problem is step away from it. I remembered those warm Midwestern nights, the panting of the dogs, and the giggling of the kids as we’d see our cats strung out in the road behind us.

There are many things that we lost as we moved toward today’s goal-oriented, success-focused culture. One of the things we lost was our innate understanding of taking it easy. Walking (or swimming, bicycling, pogo-sticking, or whatever flavor of repetitive motion you prefer) is a gift from nature. It not only realigns a malformed back; it realigns our brains and helps us work through problems even when we don’t know we have them.

It’s easy to blame the Internet for many of our ills, but I know I’d never have found this information without it. I remember myself lying on the couch that summer when my kids were 10 and 6, wondering how I was ever going to survive the physical and mental anguish. I had no idea that a simple thing like walking was key to that solution, and much more.


Further reading:


Posted in Health, Homeschooling, Parenting.

Suki, Self-publisher

I never thought I’d self-publish a book. Of course, having a blog is like self-publishing your own magazine, so it’s not like I have a general problem with the idea. But as someone who once owned a small publishing company, I liked the idea that there was someone else vetting my work, helping me make it better, then putting their stamp of approval on it.

Then along came Hanna.

My daughter (who is not named Hanna!) went through a phase where all she wanted to read were chapter book series. Judy Moody, Ivy & Bean, Ramona the Pest, junie b. jones, and even Captain Underpants were her favorites…and were all about school. One day she stood in front of the chapter book section at our library and asked mournfully, “Are there any books about homeschoolers?”

Hanna, Homeschooler

Hanna is on sale now at and

We looked for them, and there were a few. I keep a list of books about homeschoolers here. But there was nothing like the trials and tribulations of a young child at her studies—nothing like the books my daughter was obsessed with.

Back then, I homeschooled during the day and as soon as dinner was over, handed the household reins to my husband so I could go upstairs and work. That night, I went upstairs and invented Hanna, a young homeschooler who sits at the window seat in her grandmother’s house and watches her young neighbors leaving for the first day of school.

What I hoped to put into the book was the experience of homeschooling the way that other chapter book writers attempted to catch the joys and confusions of school. From what I have observed, most schools are more similar than different, whereas each homeschool is unique unto itself. I could no more contain the full homeschooling experience in a book than I could catch the unique details of each child in the world.

So Hanna, Homeschooler of necessity reflects my own experiences: a homeschool run by a mom who was ambivalent about the choice at first, an eclectic mix of structure and unschooling, a secular approach that includes education about religion, a dad whose job keeps him from being the primary educator but isn’t checked out from the daily lives of the kids.

I also added some fictional complications: My children’s own paternal grandmother never lived with us but in the story she is reimagined as the somewhat curmudgeonly denizen of the lion’s den downstairs. The father in the story is trying to better his family’s life and in so doing, has become less present in his daughter’s life. They have moved from the hippie mountain enclave that I imagined for them to a more conservative Central Valley town where they struggle to find like-minded families.

I wrote the book, got some feedback, and told my agent about it.

There’s this thing that agents do when faced with their client’s pet project that will never sell. “Well, certainly we could consider trying to find a home for the book, but let’s focus on the other manuscript first.”

In fact, my agent told me, she’d recently sold a book with a minor homeschooled character to a publisher. The publisher made it a condition of the sale that the author remove the homeschooled character from the story! “There’s no market for homeschooling stories,” they said.

Of course, I know the market for homeschoolers. You find it in households in every type of neighborhood. You find it amongst the upper crust and the barely getting by. You find it in libraries, in museums on free days, and anywhere they offer LARP. Homeschoolers are everywhere, yet largely invisible.

I agreed, however, that Hanna was hardly guaranteed to be a bestseller. I put her away, but she kept nagging at me. Why not just self-publish? she’d ask me. I don’t want to self-publish, I’d answer. Let someone else deal with it.

Finally, at a writing conference last spring, I attended a round table about self-publishing. As a former publisher, I had all the skills I needed save illustration. And all the other reasons I wasn’t self-publishing this book? Well, they didn’t seem to hold up when I tried to voice them.

“Go for it,” my fellow writers said.

“Well, I can’t think of why not,” I told myself. “So I guess I should just do this.”

So here she is, my girl Hanna: 

I didn’t do this alone, of course. I got a number of adult and kid readers to help me with revising and making it a better story. I hired a professional illustrator I knew whose kids had attended school with my son. I am reaching out to my friends and colleagues to help me get the word out the way word usually travels in our circles, from homeschool to homeschool.

I hope those in the homeschool community enjoy my little tale. I could imagine some families with children in school might enjoy it, too. But mostly, I am pleased to be adding one more little voice to the ongoing story of our culture that writers create, each day as we tell our stories. Not every child goes to school. Hanna doesn’t, and though she wonders about school, she ends up happy and thriving in homeschool.

Vive la différence!

Posted in Books, Homeschooling, Writing.

The [supposed] failure of online education

The core of the problem—I’ll just jump right into it here—is that anyone in this country thinks that education can be summed up in numbers.

It can’t.

Education is about people, and people are all different. Each unique. We may make schools to function as assembly lines, but we human beings continue to refuse to perform like widgets.

I'd be the last person to tell you that it's healthy for kids to spend most of their day in front of a screen, but that doesn't condemn online education!

I’d be the last person to tell you that it’s healthy for kids to spend most of their day in front of a screen, but that doesn’t condemn online education! My students are creative, engaged, unusual thinkers.

Case in point, the latest in many articles about the failures of online education:

Cyber Charters Have ‘Overwhelming Negative Impact,’ CREDO Study Finds

What more information do you need? I’m guessing that my longtime readers will know that I have a few bones to pick with this study.

The article cites numerous problems with the study from the point of view of educators who run charters or who are involved in the charter school movement. I agree with everything they say—numbers can’t tell the whole story.

But my response to this article is as a homeschooling parent and online teacher.

Not all students are created equal

It’s true that we want our students to be treated equally in education, but the fact is that students have widely divergent needs. I can tell you one thing about every single student I have ever known or heard of who has tried an online charter: that student is in some form of educational distress.

Here are some of the reasons why families choose online charter schools:

  • Their child is expressing suicidal ideation and swearing that if he has to continue in school, he’ll kill himself
  • Their family is going through a huge emotional upheaval, such as the death of a parent
  • Their child has the sort of difficult-to-integrate special needs that make school a nightmare, such as sensory integration disorder
  • The family is experiencing a sudden change of location due to job or family responsibilities
  • Their local public school system is a disaster and they are trying to find a solution for a child who has not received adequate education

These students—who I venture to say make up probably the majority of students in online charters—are coming to this new “school” with enormous baggage that most students don’t have. And we’re surprised that their test scores don’t measure up?

Not all online schools are created equal

Some online schools require that students sit in their seat and keep their computer active for a certain number of hours per day. If you were a student at that school, what would be your response to such a requirement? Yeah, me too. (Click… click… click…)

Some online schools are created to shovel the largest number of students through classes with the smallest possible amount of oversight (“oversight,” otherwise known as pesky teachers who want money, benefits, and respect from their jobs).

Some online schools require that students complete coursework that they are either underprepared for or overprepared for simply because of their “grade” (in other words, chronological age).

“Online school” includes such a wide variety of schools and approaches, it simply fails to offer a meaningful data set to study.

The failure of some online charter schools doesn’t spell doom for online education

I teach at Athena’s Advanced Academy, so you could say I’m biased. (For the record, Athena’s is private, not a charter, so it doesn’t fall into the parameters of the study referenced above.)

But I’m also knowledgeable about the strengths and failures of the online educational approach. Online classes completely fail to engage students who don’t want to be there, this is true. On top of that, online schools often fail students whose parents are not supportive at home. Online schools fail students who aren’t adept with computers (though participation in online classes tends to remediate that problem quickly). Online schools may fail students whose problems extend well past educational/academic issues.

The benefits of online education

Online schools do some things really well. They can:

  • Provide a safe, nurturing environment for children who have been wounded by social or academic bullying in brick-and-mortar schools
  • Provide a common space for children with diverse, unusual interests
  • Provide a way for children with special needs to connect mind-to-mind with adults and other children
  • Provide a 21st century approach to nurturing unbridled creativity

Online education isn’t for everyone. In many cases, it’s for kids who are already in some type of distress. That’s why applying cold numbers to the question of whether online charters are effective doesn’t really work. I guarantee that if you got onto one of the very active forums on Athena’s and asked the kids how they are doing, most of them would enthusiastically support what our educational approach. They are kids who needed something—a quiet space, a tribe, a breather from brick-and-mortar school—and they’re finding it at Athena’s.

I fear that articles like this will prejudice decision-makers against online education in general, which would be a shame for the students who benefit so much from this new approach to learning.

Further reading:

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

On not living the fearful life

Really bad things happen out there in the big world, bad things that people bring about.

If you read even the oldest texts that humans have passed down, we know that bad things have happened as long as stories have been told. And if you look at the forensic evidence that archaeologists present, you know that bad things have been around as long as humanity.

I’m not referring to any of the natural or even unnatural disasters that no one person is in control of, but rather the bad choices that people make.

Bad news

En garde!

Free play without adult interference is so important for our children’s development.

Recently in the news, there have been lots of bad things, including shootings at colleges. Recently in my local community there have been some very high-profile bad things, especially those involving children. These bad things have parents scared. Parents of younger kids are afraid to allow them the amount of independence that is healthy for them. Parents of teens worry as their teens go to college classrooms or live in dorms.

The media has decided that its job is stoking our fear. Let’s face it: the media’s real job is selling us stuff. And their advertisers have found that scared people buy more crap than happy, secure-feeling people. So they egg the media on to keep scaring us more and more.

The feedback loop

I believe the media frenzy for bad news creates a feedback loop in which people who were already vulnerable get pushed further:

  • People who are vulnerable to acting out from fear get egged on to go do violent things.
  • People who are vulnerable to feeling fearful are more likely to retreat from the world.

The first category is, frankly, a small sliver of humanity. Most of us don’t act violently out of fear. Most of us, when we’re fearful, retreat.

But in this case, retreat is also a form of defeat. Parents who keep their children from playing on their own outside are defeated in their parenting. Letting go and allowing our children to experience the world as individuals is one of our hardest and most necessary parenting jobs. (See Good People, Bad People, and the Rest of Us for my take on that.)

Risk reality

School bus

Riding in a school bus and being in school are two extremely safe things for your child to do, statistically speaking.

What the media doesn’t want us to remember, because this knowledge doesn’t lead people to go out and buy things, is that the biggest risks we take on a daily basis are ones that we don’t worry about: Statistically speaking, if you’re worried about your kids’ safety you should never drive a car, or for that matter, cross a road on foot. Of course, anyone who is worried about these things to the point where they won’t do them is assumed to be mentally ill.

We don’t give up driving our cars and crossing streets because that’s part of living the lives that we want to have.

Though you wouldn’t know it from all the scary stories, playing outside is not a major risk factor in children’s lives. And a college classroom is one of the safest places on earth to be.

As people who know and understand risk, we can’t retreat.

Being an example

What we have to do is stand up for what’s right, live our lives boldly, and know that our example inspires other people. A friend of mine posted an email on our local homeschooling list after a horrible local tragedy about how she let her kids go to the park across the street from her house alone the next day. I was really grateful for her to showing her vulnerability publicly like that, and reminding people that the most dangerous thing she allowed her children to do that day was to ride in the car with her.

We can’t let the relentless pursuit of advertising clicks rule our decision-making.

My teen goes to college classrooms, where one of the subjects being taught now is how to do a lockdown.

My almost-teen plays alone outside, rides busses alone, and is developing an admirable sense of self-confidence.

I feel confident that we are doing the right thing, though I am no less vulnerable to fear implanted by scare stories than anyone else. I hope more and more parents join me, my friend, and others who are fighting back against the hysteria that our relentless focus on people doing bad things has stoked.

Posted in Culture.

Risk-taking and lifelong learning

As adults, it’s sometimes hard to remember that feeling of vulnerability that kids have when they’re learning new things. That’s one reason why I continue to value the experience of trying new things out in the world—I think it helps me be a better teacher.

One thing I’ve been doing recently is solo jazz singing. Although I’ve sung in classical vocal ensembles for years, I got shy about performing as a soloist. Last spring I decided to defeat that shyness, one way or another!

I took a jazz singing workshop at my local community college, which was a blast.  [See “In praise of adult ed”] Another thing I’ve been doing is going to a jazz open mike to perform.

Suki singing

This is a picture of me singing with a jazz ensemble.

It’s great to get up there and be nervous about how well you’re going to perform, but then realize that the important thing is the joy of learning and expanding your boundaries. The people who come to this open mike range from rank amateurs who are just learning to pro’s who want a friendly audience to work through new material.

It’s hard to remember, when I’m there, that this is an unusual experience for most adults. For most of us—and I include myself in this category much of the time—life is about doing what we’re used to and what we feel comfortable with. Once we’re adults and we have a career (or not), we are less likely to take the sorts of risks that kids take for granted.

It’s possible, in normal adult life, to go months without going to a place we’ve never been before, have in-depth conversations with new people, and choose to do something in front of other people that we aren’t sure we can do.

Yet it’s this sort of striving that keeps us alive and learning. Certainly, we can go for months without having a conversation that pulls us out of our comfort zones, but those are the months that get lost in the mists of our memories. We’ll have these long stretches of time from which we can remember next to nothing, but then retain vivid memories of one conversation we had at a school gathering we didn’t really want to go to.

If we adults make an effort to keep striving for new and challenging experiences in our lives, it makes us better teachers and parents. My students, I try to keep in mind, do the equivalent of getting up in front of a jazz band nearly every day of their lives. They are always facing something new, and their bravery is inspiring!

Posted in Arts & Music, Culture, Homeschooling, Parenting.

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My Aha! Moment

A while back I was contacted by the Aha Moment crew about taking part once they got to Santa Cruz. I had never heard of them, so of course my first instinct was that this was some new kind of phishing invented to fool Internet-savvy homeschooling moms. It turned out it wasn’t—it’s a real thing and a real job. This really nice group of young people travel the country in a trailer tricked out as a TV studio, interviewing locals at each stop and putting their interviews up on the Web.

I had two reactions to the idea of taking part:

1) I don’t really have “aha moments,” so it wouldn’t be authentic

2) Why would I bother?

After watching videos from the first location that popped up, I decided to watch videos from San Francisco. That’s what sold me. I realize that this is just another way for Mutual of Omaha to try to make us like them, but it’s insidiously wonderful in a weird little way. As soon as I switched to San Francisco—though the trailer, the lighting, and the editing were the same—it was a whole new experience. Those were San Franciscans I saw on the screen. It was so cool to see my former city of residence, the place that I always wanted to live until I lived there, and then always wanted to go back to when I could, represented in this funny little modern sociological experiment.

It felt cool. I decided to do it.

Then I had to find my “aha.” As I said, I don’t really think that way. But once I did, what I wanted to talk about became obvious.

I’m not saying you should go watch me, but I will say that this is a fun and curiously interesting portrait of America that those fuddy duddy insurance guys are bankrolling. I got very little time to chat with the crew, but I could see why they enjoyed their jobs so much.

Choose a city and watch! It’s lovely in a weird, millennial sort of way.

And, OK, you can watch mine here:

Posted in Films, Homeschooling, Parenting, Writing.

Good people, bad people, and the rest of us

The other day when we were talking to our kids about interacting with other people online, we came up against a problem that we face over and over as parents:

Concern #1: We don’t think it’s healthy for our kids to view the world as some horrible scary place they should be afraid of interacting with.

Concern #2: On the other hand, horrible scary things happen out there every day, and we want our children to have basic tools to deal with things that might come their way.

How you balance those concerns pretty much sums up your view of what your role as a parent is.

I tend to spend a lot of time standing in the middle of the seesaw, trying to keep it level. I did let my kids walk around the neighborhood alone when they were little. I didn’t prime them with horrible stories about mean people and what they will do to them. I did tell them that it’s OK to question the motives of adults they come into contact with.

Mean people R us, some of the time

A challenge for parents is to develop a consistent approach to how we deal with danger in the world, especially potentially dangerous people. What I came up with translates pretty well to the online world as well:

Premise #1: There is a small number of really terrible people in this world who want to hurt others.

Premise #2: There is a small number of really saintly people who will never hurt anyone or anything.

Premise #3: The rest of us just do our best with what life throws us.

I’ve never been terribly concerned about Premise #1, to tell you the truth. If you want your children not to be hurt by an adult, you’d do well to choose a partner who won’t hurt them because that’s who’s most likely to do it. If there are other people in your life who might hurt your children, do your best to change your life so that you don’t interact with those people.

Stranger-on-stranger violence is rare enough; stranger-adult-on-child violence is really quite rare. It’s also generally not possible to predict, so you can’t live your life assuming that everyone is out to get you.

Since you can’t reliably identify the saints amongst us, Premise #3 is where things get hairy. The fact is, sometimes we human beings don’t behave as well as we should. One of the situations in which we behave less well than normal is when we feel anonymous. Those who live in tourist towns, like me, can tell you without hesitation that people are less polite and leave more garbage lying around when they are at outside of their own community.

Our online lives have offered all of us a certain measure of anonymity and distance from the people we interact with. Even real humans that we see in the real world gain a certain amount of psychological distance online. People put things in email they’d never say to someone’s face. Facebook generates mini-scandals and lots of hurt feelings every day.

Do your best, keep trying to do better

So when we’re talking to our kids about taking care of themselves—in the “real” world or online—we’re more concerned about that huge number of people who are simply doing their best. We’re concerned whether our children are conscious of their own behavior and how it might affect others. And we’re concerned that another child that they met online may not have the same guidance from the adults in his or her real life.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible that the child they met online is actually a 34-year-old serial child kidnapper. It’s just that when I worry about which values to impart to my children, I put fear of someone running a red light and hitting them in a crosswalk way ahead of any of the more headline-worthy ways to get hurt in this world. It’s hard to resist the headlines (not to mention the Amber Alerts shining above the highways) and just plow forward with a hope that our kids will do OK for themselves in the world.

I think that open communication is the best way to do that. Each of us has to make a decision about where on the seesaw we want to stand, and then decide to be OK with that decision, no matter what happens.




Posted in Parenting, Psychology.

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