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Parenting and creativity

When I was younger, I realized I had no interest in anything that wasn’t creative, and this could be a significant handicap. So if I wanted to learn how to do something, I would assign myself a task. For example, instead of using tutorials and classes to learn about graphic design software, I just started working for my brother and learned on the job.

Once I had kids, I noticed that they behaved similarly. They didn’t want to learn about anything—they wanted to dip their hands in and do things. Just like me, they tend to back into tasks. While other kids learned phonics, my kids refused to sound out words until one day they could read…pretty much anything. When my daughter was homeschooling, it was a duel to the death if I tried to teach her something. But then she’d come up with an idea for a project or a game, and teach herself more than I ever could have in the same amount of time.

Bloom's Taxonomy

Educators often use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a model for how people learn. However, Bloom put “creating” way at the top of the pyramid, which implies to many teachers that it is something to be put off until the other learning is taken care of. The problem is, creative people just don’t learn this way. They need to jump into creation first.

I’m not going to take a stand on nature vs. nurture here (and tend to agree with those who say that it’s not a valid classification of how people learn, anyway). But researchers are finding that when they watch people’s brains work, they see marked differences between people who do “creative” work and people whose work is purely technical or organizational. All of these people may have similar brainpower, but use their brains differently.

One researcher, Nancy Andreasen, studied creative writers and is now doing a wider study of people who are high achievers in creative fields (not only the arts but also science and math).

“For years, I had been asking myself what might be special or unique about the brains of the workshop writers I had studied,” she writes in ‘Secrets of the Creative Brain.’ “In my own version of a eureka moment, the answer finally came to me: creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see.”

When I got to this text I stopped and immediately highlighted it. It encapsulates both the joys and frustrations of parenting highly creative children. You parents know who you are: other kids use toy cars to play, well, toy cars. Your kids put their toy cars in a pot and cooked them into “drive soup” on their toy stove. Other kids largely accept that we never go up the slide backwards; your kids asked why and then argued a thousand reasons why the rule was wrong and unfair. Other kids make messes; “mess” is a state of being for your kid.

Last year I went to a talk about how to nurture creativity in children, but the question that pertained to my parenting life was quite the opposite: Is it OK if sometimes I really really want to stop the unbridled creativity that is driving me nuts? Can’t a child just set the darn table without building a case worthy of the Supreme Court for why it’s actually not her job?

The answer I came to is something like “yes” and also like “no.” Every time we nurture that independence of thought and randomness of connection that our young children show, we are supporting brains that will one day be able to apply novel approaches to artistic, engineering, and scientific endeavors. On the other hand, one of the jobs of parents is to help our kids become functional adults. Isn’t it part of good parenting to help a child learn where his “off” switch is? Our kids’ future coworkers and spouses will thank us.

Finding the balance between nurturing that little creative mind and shutting off the seemingly nonstop onslaught of free association is something I’ve always struggled with. My own creative brain definitely needs quiet and contemplation, something I had in excess before I had children. Now, sometimes I admit that I just have to say “please. stop. talking. please. stop. now!” to one or other of my kids. At the same time that I know I’m squashing their brains’ healthy bursts of association and originality, I also know that I need to stay sane.

I guess like every issue we face as parents, there’s no single right answer. I hope that I keep the balance tipped toward the nurturing of creativity, but I also know that sometimes the appropriate answer to a whiny “whyyyyyyyyyyyy do IIIIIII have to set the table?” is simply, “Because I said so.”


Posted in Avant Parenting, Education, Psychology.

Book Review: Legendary Learning: The Famous Homeschoolers’ Guide to Self-Directed Excellence

Legendary Learning: The Famous Homeschoolers’ Guide to Self-Directed Excellence
Jamie McMillin
Rivers and Years Publishing, 2012

Great summer reading for homeschooling parents!

Last August, I attended the first ever (that I know about!) online homeschooling conference through The Learning Revolution Project. One of the talks I attended was by homeschooler and author Jamie McMillin, who had researched the lives of famous homeschoolers. I requested a copy of her book and recently unearthed it on my desk. Oh yeah, I said I’d review that book. Ah, the life of an overly busy writer/mother/homeschooler.

legendarylearningI am glad, however, that I finally got around to reading this wonderful book. McMillin shows fine writing skills, impressive research, and insightful analysis of how we homeschoolers can learn by example.

One of the first questions she addresses is one very important to me: why does she choose “famous” homeschoolers rather than people who exhibited other kinds of success? Her justification is probably the best one could offer: we don’t know much about other homeschoolers. McMillin’s homeschoolers—Pearl Buck, Louis Armstrong, Thomas Edison, Frederick Douglass, Andrew Carnegie…—were the subjects of multiple biographies and left detailed paper trails for us to consider. So although she does focus on famous people rather than on the decidedly more real tapestry of people who simply led successful and productive lives, she does a great job framing how she chose her subjects and what she believes we can learn from them.

The book is arranged thematically, with chapters addressing various aspects of life and learning illuminated by examples of famous homeschoolers. McMillin also intersperses small glimpses of her own homeschooling life, a welcome connection to the modern world without making the book too personal. She then offers her own analysis of what successful homeschoolers do well, and how it translates both to day-to-day homeschooling decisions as well as the future success of the homeschooled child.

The subjects McMillin addresses range widely, with colorful and evocative chapter titles to introduce them: That Divine Spark, Wild Intelligence, Go Ahead—Be a Rebel, Passion into Possibility, Attitude is Everything, Clear Grit. For each subject, McMillin first analyzes the concept and how it played out in at least one famous homeschooler’s life. Then she considers how the principles analyzed could relate to homeschooling and offers us real-life examples. She ends each chapter with a bullet list of “take-aways” from the preceding discussion.

I’m not at the point in my homeschooling life where I am looking for nuts & bolts advice, though I am guessing readers in that stage will find this book useful in many ways. What I really love about the book, however, is how it shows that although the modern homeschooling movement is relatively new, and the methods we are employing can sometimes seem radical and lacking in foundation, really our quest is not a new one. McMillin’s famous homeschoolers all achieved success not because they followed the rules that most modern Americans take for granted—stay in school, follow the rules, get good grades, be a high achiever. They achieved success because they followed their passions, didn’t listen to naysayers, were diligent, and knew that they had something to offer the world.

As McMillin’s book makes very clear, that sounds a lot like the contemporary homeschooling movement. And after I read this book, I felt all the more equipped to advocate for our unusual educational choice.

This post is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop—click here to read other great blogs about summer reading.

This month, we focus on Summer Reading. Summer gives many of us extra opportunities for reading… the fiction we love but don’t usually have time for, the non-fiction that we wish we had time to study during the year, or the boundless free time to read on the beach, at the cabin, or on the boat… or in your own living room. Don’t miss the special reading (and Lego!) nook, or the struggle some kids have with reading. Summer Reading is more than just a school reading list.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

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Focus on the positive

I’ve been thinking lately about one lesson I learned through parenting a child with behavioral and learning differences. When you parent a child who falls somewhere within that wide field we call “typical,” lots of traditional parenting methods with incentives and consequences might work well enough. But it’s not until we have a child who falls far from the center of the field that we might discover the value of parenting—and teaching—to the positive.

I was most recently reminded of this when my daughter spent a week at her favorite summer camp, Santa Cruz Soccer Camp. The first time I brought her to camp, I was very nervous. I explained that there were various behavioral challenges and that I was willing to stay and help. Coach Bill, without hesitation, asked if she was liable to run off.

1406Soccer1“Well, no,” I answered. That was one challenge she’d never presented me with!

“Fine, then,” he said. “We can handle anything else. Go get some time for yourself.”

And that was the end of the idea that I might have to stay and supervise her at soccer camp. The reason Bill was so sure of his camp’s ability to handle my child was simply that they don’t focus on the problems—they focus on success. They call their approach “learning through enjoyment,” but it’s a variation on lots of approaches with different names that stem from one simple idea: kids learn when they enjoy something and are successful at it, not when they are set up to fail and are punished. Lots of kids have learned deep lessons from soccer, drama, writing, and science—I am willing to bet that few have learned from detention.

Kids learn when they feel a reason for learning: they’re having fun, they’re benefiting personally from what they’re doing, or even when they see that someone else is benefiting from what they’re doing. Kids do learn from failure, but only when it’s in the context of a challenge that makes sense to them. Kids don’t learn when they’re scared—or rather, they don’t learn the lesson we think they’ve learned. A student who is afraid of failing history doesn’t learn history because he’s afraid, but he may well learn how to search for plagiarized history papers online. A child who is afraid her parent will punish her if she’s rude doesn’t learn the value of being polite—she learns how to avoid punishment.

Now that my daughter is eleven, one of the things I’m looking forward to in the near future is leadership training at her soccer camp. This year when Bill asked all the coaches who had been through leadership training to step forward, all but one did (and the one who didn’t just simply didn’t grow up in Santa Cruz!). These wonderful people who spend their summers teaching soccer and success to kids are now adults or almost adults, and many of them started in this very camp when they were five or six. Leadership taught them the value of success, not just for themselves but the value of helping others achieve success.

I looked at a number of potential schools for my daughter to attend next year, and one thing that struck me now that I have this awareness of the value of success is how the staff view their jobs. At one school I visited, the staff—from principal on down—talked somewhat like jailers. They focused on the negative aspects of young teens, talked about all the problems that our kids would face, and warned us that our sweet children were about to turn into sullen, uncommunicative teens.

Guess where my daughter is not going?

Now that she’s a tween, she’s gotten past being a “troublemaker” in the classroom. I don’t expect her to have disciplinary problems, so why would I care how the staff treats these problems? The reason is that how we view the people we work with—whether they’re preschoolers or high schoolers—will affect their achievements. Schools with cultures that focus on success will find that they have fewer problems to begin with. They will find that when you focus on students’ positive qualities, those positive qualities will shine brighter. The students’ problems—their negative qualities—will not disappear, but they won’t be always in the spotlight.

Of course, no approach is 100% successful, so sure, you’ll be able to show me students who didn’t succeed in spite of a focus on the positive. But I’ve seen it with so many children—and the people at soccer camp can vouch for the approach with even more authority. Focusing on a student’s strengths and making sure they’re having fun while they’re working hard is a time-tested recipe for success.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I sure do wish there were some way to have summer camp all year round!

Posted in Avant Parenting, Education, Psychology.

My essential children’s library

School is out this week, and I am thinking toward next week: annual spring cleaning. Our spring cleaning usually happens in the summer and is largely a culling of clothing the kids have outgrown, homeschooling materials we don’t need and will pass on to others, and books.

Yes, my family is part of the rare set of humans who have: a) remodeled their whole upstairs after discussing the need for more bookshelves, and b) bought a house in large part because of the copious bookshelf space in the kitchen.

Despite our feeling that you can never have too many books, when you have kids who love to read, you can have too many books. Books they hated and will never read again, books they bought at their school book fair (hosted by a not-to-be-mentioned publisher of generally cheap and disposable literature), books someone gave them that they will never be interested in.

But there are some books that will stay on our shelves no matter what. I decided to write up a list of these books, the ones I brought with me from childhood as well as the ones we’ve discovered since. My personal list of desert island children’s literature, so to speak.

Personally, I love the old Alice woodcuts and wouldn’t buy a book with modern illustrations!

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

I will admit, this book will always come first for me. I read this book over and over as a child and as a teen. There is nothing else like it in terms of the effect the tale had on our culture, the inventiveness of the language, and the incredible imagination married with observations of the real world.

Harry Potter by J.K.Rowling

This list was inspired a few minutes ago by my standing in front of my son’s bookshelves, musing about how worn out his copies are. He and his sister have read these books to shreds. And the most wonderful thing about these books is that they squeaked in right before the age of i-devices changed children forever. They are perhaps our last, innocent look at childhood before the iPad, the child without Google, the child who has to invent his own games and solve his own problems.

The New Way Things Work by David MacAulay

I wasn’t familiar with MacAulay before a friend bought the original version of this book for my son. This is the book that answers questions about the stuff we use every day in depth and with humor. Really, you could buy any of MacAulay’s books—his books Castle, City, Cathedral, The Way We Workand many others do the same for more specific subjects. When I was a child we had the Time/Life series of books about the world, and this is like a modern take on those (which don’t make my list because, alas, our kids do have Google and Time/Life seems so quaint now).

The collected works of Dr. Seuss

Go ahead, splurge and get them all. Dr. Seuss was born when Theodor Geisel was issued the challenge of writing a children’s book with only the most common 50 words that a first-grader can read. He wrote The Cat in the Hat. Most of us would have written Dick and Jane Do Something Really Boring! Seuss’s books are so amazing because with so little he creates drama, tension, and irony, something often lacking in children’s early readers. Throw away the Bob books—read Seuss over and over!

The lines between good and bad, dark and light, friend and wild beast are all blurred in Sendak’s work.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Like Seuss, Sendak never worried about corrupting young minds—he knew that young minds love the dark and mysterious parts of life. Like Seuss and MacAulay, the illustrations are also a huge part of the story. Can you imagine someone issuing Where the Wild Things Are with new illustrations? How could any artist improve on Sendak’s dark and silly, scary and cute world?

Books about my part of the world

This, of course, would change with each reader’s location. I think having books set in and about the environment your children are growing up in is a wonderful part of the reading life. When I was a child, I don’t remember a single book covering anything remotely like the place I grew up in. But since I have been raising my children on California’s Central Coast, we have collected both fiction and nonfiction about our area. If you’re a local here, check out my book list of children’s books set in our area. We also have multiple books on redwood forests, a local mushroom guide, several books about the ecology of our seashore, and Tom Killion’s wonderful woodcuts.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S.Lewis

I found it fascinating to reread these books as an adult once my kids were ready for them. I had such intense, vivid recollections from the books and had read them multiple times as a child. As adults, both my husband and I found them disappointing, hardly the brilliant tales we remembered. But our children adored them. Just like me, my daughter went through a period where she read and reread them. I guess just as the children can’t go to Narnia once they were grown up, my grown-up self just can’t access the magic anymore. But they clearly still speak to kids.

Little House on the Prairie and sequels by Laura Ingalls Wilder

My adult enjoyment of these books is tempered by what I have read about Wilder and her manipulative daughter. But ignore all that—the Little House series, with all of its distortions and rose-colored glasses, is a deeply important part of American culture. I think all children should read these books, but somehow they seem to be most important to girls of a certain age. I was sure, when I was a girl, that I’d been born into the wrong time. I longed to get up with Laura on icy mornings, stoking up the fire and trudging to the well. Laura has been a trusted friend to American children for so many generations because her stories are so appealing, and so much a part of the history of this country.

My First series by DK

Encyclopedias for the toddler set—these books are wonderful to look at with small children. They are apparently not publishing the one my son loved the most. Simply called My First Word Book, it featured pictures of most of the things that a small child might encounter in daily life, arranged by category. We referred to this book as “the datz book” because whenever he saw something he liked, he would point at it and say “datz!” He did a lot of pointing with these books.

If you’d like to see other book lists I’ve written, click here!

This post is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop—click here to read other great blogs about summer reading.

This month, we focus on Summer Reading. Summer gives many of us extra opportunities for reading… the fiction we love but don’t usually have time for, the non-fiction that we wish we had time to study during the year, or the boundless free time to read on the beach, at the cabin, or on the boat… or in your own living room. Don’t miss the special reading (and Lego!) nook, or the struggle some kids have with reading. Summer Reading is more than just a school reading list.

Posted in Avant Parenting.

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The Snopes childhood

The other day I was telling my son about the Loch Ness Monster. He’s fifteen and had perhaps heard of the thing somewhere, but it’s hardly a fixture in his childhood as it was in mine. Of course, there are various reasons for this: what is interesting to kids and popular culture changes over time so perhaps Nessie will come around again.

But the biggest reason, I think, is how childhood has changed in this time of the (Dis)Information Super Highway.

Loch Ness Monster

Nessie was a fixture in my 70s childhood.

The Loch Ness Monster was big for kids of my generation not just because it was a funny hoax and funny hoaxes are fun. (If you don’t agree with that, just visit Youtube and start watching.)

Nessie was also big because in the 70s, you had to be seriously dedicated to perpetuate a worldwide hoax. Even crop circles weren’t popularized until the late 70s, and I remember hearing about them in the Midwest only in the early 80s. The people who perpetuated the Loch Ness Monster hoax had to put in real energy and do it with purpose. They had to take photographs at the real site, then physically alter those photos to show the monster. Then they had to show those photos to many, many people, not just their drinking buddies at the local pub. They had to dupe people who were professional skeptics—newspaper editors most of all.

These days, the hoax is a part of our daily lives. Whenever someone posts something fishy on Facebook or forwards it to me in email, I hardly have to think before typing SNOPES.COM into my browser. If the Snopes people ever decide to get a sense of humor (and ditch their sense of ethics) I’m in big trouble!

Hoax me!

Today I fell for a hoax without hesitation. I saw this headline on Facebook:

Computer simulating 13-year-old boy 
becomes first to pass Turing test

To the wife and mother of computer dudes, this is big news (google “turing test” if you don’t know what that is). I clicked, skimmed, and forwarded.

Too bad it was a hoax perpetuated by a known hoaxster who is well-known in the technical world, but apparently not by the very well-educated and (I hope) sufficiently skeptical editors of The New York Times, Washington Post, NBC, Yahoo, ZDNet, Ars Technica… the list is so depressing I won’t go on. Sheesh, even the Santa Cruz Sentinel, our local bastion of fine journalism, didn’t fall for it. But the New York Times? Well, OK, they’re not always the most technically savvy publication, but well-known technology blogs?

So here’s my question:

Are our children growing up in a world in which the line between reality and fiction is no longer clear, in which, in fact, there may be no line?

Are they growing up a world in which reality can be manufactured—-google “truthiness“—-and dismissed just as easily? If so, how will this affect them as they grow older and need to make more and more serious decisions in their lives?

I just finished the last Hunger Games book, which, I agree with others who have said so, didn’t quite live up to the promise that the series had made. However, I really appreciate one of the themes in the series, one that I think really resonates with young readers growing up in this confusing world. Over and over, Katniss sees that what seems real turns out to be manufactured, and what she assumes is manufactured turns out to be real. She lives in a world where the earth under her feet shifts at the will of the government, and her distrust of reality and everyone in it is the most unsettling and meaningful part of the series.

We’re not that far gone yet, and in fact I doubt it’s “the government” that we should fear here. But we are slipping into that world. It’s so easy to be pulled into online hoaxes… how long until they slip into our real world?

For my part, a bit worried, I queried my son by email as to whether he thought that his parents were just an Internet hoax. His answer was somewhat comforting:

"I'm pretty sure you're real..."

…but what’s up with that final ellipsis? Perhaps he has his doubts… And if he does, what’s to say that the question can ever be answered conclusively?

So I have to admit, I’m not planning on asking my 11-year-old the same question anytime soon. I fear what her answer might be…

Posted in Avant Parenting, Culture Critic.

Learning through play

Kid #1

When our son was ready to enter kindergarten, we had to do some soul-searching to choose between the various local options for education. We narrowed our choices down to three:

  1. The public elementary school, which started very early in the morning (I had a baby at the time) and which was in the midst of No Child Left Behind efforts to pump up test scores.
  2. A local Montessori, which many parents love but somehow rubbed me the wrong way with its no-parents-allowed rules and quiet, orderly classrooms.
  3. What I referred to as our local “granola” or “hippie” school, where the kids played hard and got very, very dirty.

My husband and I figured that the dirtiness of the kids at the end of the day was probably a good indicator for kindergarten, so we signed him up. At his school, he got to work with clay every week. He got to ride a zipline from a two-story play structure. He was so thrilled at being allowed to climb a tall redwood on the property that the school actually had to make a rule (something they seldom did) because he was giving the adults heart palpitations when they looked up and saw a small boy so high in the air.

En garde!

My daughter and friends “working hard” at being homeschoolers.

Though the next year we enrolled him in a public charter because the private school tuition was too much for us, I felt like I’d given him a gift that we couldn’t put a price on. While the public schools were hell-bent on pushing academics earlier and earlier, cutting out art, music, and PE in their zeal to “improve testing outcomes,” we made a commitment to following the research, which is very, very clear:

  • Kindergarteners do not need academics to become good students later.
  • Success in life, or even just school, does not depend on 6-year-olds being able to sit still at desks and color in worksheets.
  • Putting unnecessarily high expectations on children does not make them develop faster.
  • When the choice for an activity for 6-year-olds is between nature and worksheets, nature should always win.

Kid #2

Once our daughter was kindergarten age, we had a whole new host of concerns. She was clearly not going to be able to hack it in a public school classroom, so we ended up homeschooling. And once I started homeschooling, I found out that I wasn’t the only person in the county (as it seemed up until then) who had read the research and knew that academics weren’t important for kindergarteners. Homeschoolers were out there playing in the dirt all the time, and they were showing good results. Kids who had played in the dirt and did no academics at all until they were in their double digits were doing just fine—some of them were getting into our top universities.

Why don’t we play?

So why do we persist in trying to shove academics earlier and earlier when the research is so clear? I think part of it is our Puritan leanings—as a culture, we are uncomfortable with our children “playing” rather than “working.” (I once ran into a neighbor packing her 3-year-old into the car in the wee hours of the morning. The mom cheerfully announced, “I’m going to work at my office, and she is going to her work at preschool.” Really?)

Another reason is that our educational establishment has become obsessed with testable outcomes, and you don’t necessarily get testable outcomes by sending kids out to play in the dirt. When you do worksheets, you can show that little Johnny’s ability to color the apple red and the banana yellow improved through the year. No matter that no typical kid needs to be taught these things. Do we really believe that Johnny would be coloring his apples purple as a adult because he wasn’t taught this in kindergarten? (In fact, the avant garde in me says, what the heck is wrong with purple apples anyway?)

Finally, modern families have found themselves living lives that hardly resemble the lives of families 30 years ago. For a variety of reasons—social, political, economical—parents spend less and less time with their kids. They still love their kids as much as ever, and want to know that their kids are doing well. But when they pick up their kid from kindergarten and all he brings home is dirt in his shoes, that doesn’t feel as satisfying as when they get that stack of worksheets that show that Johnny is indeed “learning” and “working” at school. As families detach themselves from the daily lives of kids, it’s easier for them to believe that “working” is “learning,” though the two have only a glancing relationship at best. So parents themselves often feed into a school’s “work” culture and demand to see more evidence of their children’s achievements.

Parents of children who have been deemed “gifted” may fall victim to these pressures doubly—we often feel compelled to use our kids’ output as some sort of proof that they deserve the label. Although some gifted kids do love doing academic work at an early age, most approach their “work” just as other kids do: through play. Parents of many highly advanced math students say that they had no reason for repetitive worksheets—their kids played math because they loved it.

The proof is in the dirty fingernails

There’s always the issue of how we “prove” that all play and no work is good for young children. There’s lots of better evidence out there (see links below), but I can add that my children, a sample size of two, are doing just fine. My son never had a single day of reading instruction at school, and now he can read anything he wants to, including college level textbooks that he’s using as a high schooler. My daughter played her way through kindergarten, first, second, and third grade, with a tiny bit of “academics” thrown in starting in fourth grade. She’s now in public school sixth grade, doing well and with test scores to “prove” it.

But for a larger sample, just look around at any group of adults over 40. Did any of us have academic instruction in kindergarten? Probably a few. Most of us went to play-based kindergartens where academics was limited to singing the alphabet song. But here we are, inventing amazing handheld devices, making groundbreaking films, running thriving small businesses, working as dental hygienists and truck drivers and police officers…and, most importantly, raising our children.

In our overscheduled world, making time for free play can sometimes seem more difficult than making it to tae kwon do class three times a week. But although all the opportunities we modern parents offer our children are great, we can’t lose sight of the undeniable fact that having nothing to do is good for kids.

As my mother used to say when a child complained of boredom, “Go outside and get out of my hair!”

A few resources to learn more about learning through play:


This month, Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page shares our Blog Hop on Gifted @Play.  Bloggers from all corners of the gifted community–parents, teachers and counselors, from the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Zealand–join us to share their perspectives on play: outdoors, indoors, creative, active, child, teen and adult.

Don’t miss last month’s inaugural Blog Hop, The “G” Word.  If you’d like to join our next Blog Hop, contact us  Special thanks to Pamela Ryan for our Blog Hop graphics!

Posted in Avant Parenting, Culture Critic, Education, Homeschooling.

From School to Homeschool available now as an e-book!

Suki and book

The eBook won’t be as cute, but it fits in your phone!

My book, From School to Homeschool, is now available as an eBook! Visit Great Potential Press to access the Kindle and Nook versions for $9.99. I did the eBook conversion myself (a “fun” process, ahem) and updated links and references. Although written specifically for transitioning gifted learners from school to homeschool, the book is a useful manual for any parent who wants to transition from a school-based to a homeschool-based mindset, focusing on advice about tailoring homeschool to unusual learners.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

The sleepless season

My homeschooled teen decided he wanted to take the AP Computer Science exam. So bright and early the other morning we turned up at a local high school where he would take the test. Everyone was wonderfully kind to him (no sneering at homeschoolers in our community… well, at least none that I see on a regular basis). The teacher administering the exam was a kindly older sub who often works at the school. I joked to her that getting a homeschooler to the other side of the county before 8 a.m. was an unusual chore.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s that sleepless season for students. Yesterday a little boy in my class put his head down on his desk and went right to sleep!”

The thing is, it’s not the sleepless season for millions of children around the country who are home educated and some other number who go to sensible private schools. (I suppose there is a sensible public school out there somewhere, but not in my neck of the woods.)

What do I mean by sensible? A school—or a homeschool, for that matter—makes sensible decisions based on what works for students. Period. Yes, the reality of a limited budget does have an effect on decision-making. So do a host of other considerations. But none of those considerations should override the basic mission of education, to do what’s best for the students.

So why is the spring not sleepless season for homeschooled students, some private school students, and perhaps some mythical public school students? Because research has shown us loud and clear how important sleep is to learning, and has also shown us that teenagers’ sleep patterns are different than children’s. And when school administrators are parents, or are directly answerable to parents, they tend to notice that teens do much better if their classes do not start at 8 o’clock in the morning.

“Period 0″ at our district high school starts at a brutal 6:40 in the morning. Period 1 is not that much better at 7:45. Teens are probably waking up by Period 3, which starts mid-morning. By then, they’ve zombied their way through two important classes. Not only does the school not take into account teens’ natural sleep rhythms, which tell their bodies to stay up later and sleep in later. But the reality of a modern high school student’s life is that it’s quite impossible to get to sleep early even if your body is willing, given the amount of homework that gets piled on top of anything else they might want to do with their lives. It’s not uncommon for middle schoolers to have to stay up until 11 to finish their homework; many high schoolers are regularly up past midnight, then drag out of bed at 6 to get to school on time. All this and they’re supposed to be getting 9 hours of sleep per night.

At various times during his school years, my son went to private school. We were never comfortable with having to pay tuition—it always had to be balanced with not paying for something else. But one of our major considerations was that private schools listen to parents—they have to. For two years our son attended a school an hour’s bus ride away…and still left home later than he would have going to the elementary school down the hill.

So let’s get this straight: Spring is not “sleepless season for students.” It’s a ritual that we have chosen and can just as simply discard. AP tests do not have to start at 8 a.m. School does not have to start at 6:45. Yes, I’m sure all sorts of other considerations came into play when these decisions were made, but the best health and education of the students was clearly not a major criterion.

Posted in Avant Parenting, Education, Homeschooling.

Separating individuals from the crowd

Before we had children, my husband and I thought that the G-word (“gifted”) was funny at best, elitist and misguided at worst.

Then we had kids.

Anyone who has a developmentally disabled child knows that their child is different, sometimes from the day that child is born. Other people know, it, too. While the parents learn to reset their expectations and raise the child they got with love and compassion, the people around them get a quick education in valuing individual human lives. Every decent person learns to accept, at the least, and hopefully cherish the child for his or her own self. Though parents sometimes grumble about other parents wanting “special privileges” for their developmentally disabled children, in general we all abide by the rule of not criticizing the parents for the child they got.

Not so when it comes to gifted children, however.

Parents of gifted kids hear all manner of nasty things, including (but not limited to):

  • Your kid isn’t that smart
  • You’re just saying that to pump up your own ego
  • You’re just pushing him – let him have a “normal” childhood
  • You’re an elitist
  • You think your kid is better than mine

There is very little understanding out in the wider community of families that those of us with kids like this just got the kids we got. It’s not our fault, nor can we take credit for it. And just as parents of developmentally disabled kids got a package that they need to accept whole and raise as best they can, parents of gifted kids have to accept and raise their children to the best of their ability.

I’m not going to debate the ill-chosen word “gifted” here – given that I refer to it as if it’s a swear word, I suspect you know what I think of it. (And if you don’t, read about it here and here.)

What I do want to point out is that no matter what word you use, when you have a child who is different from the norm, you need to raise the child you got to the best of your ability. And sometimes that means that you do, in fact, ask for “special privileges” for your child.

No one argues that kids with athletic ability should not be allowed to play on more competitive teams in order to maximize their learning of their sport.

No one argues that talented musicians should be stuck in orchestras with beginners until they hit the age of 18.

Yet many people argue that kids who have mastered a subject at school should be educated exactly the same as the other children. Not only do people argue this with a straight face, but they tell parents who are looking for an appropriate education for their children that there is something wrong with trying to provide an appropriate education.

Research shows that the United States, never a very comfortable place to be a “smart kid,” is slipping behind in educating our top students. Though in some ways students as a whole are performing better, our top students’ scores are stagnant or falling. I believe this is a direct result of our cultural distaste for separating students based on “intelligence.” As budgets were cut during the recession, gifted programs were the first to feel the ax.

The parents of children with advanced academic abilities are loathe to speak up when their children’s needs aren’t served because of the backlash they feel from other parents as well as teachers and administrators. When money is tight, the argument goes, why should your kids get “special” treatment? So gifted education suffers, few teachers are trained in how to differentiate for their brightest students in the classroom, and families choose from one of the short list of options: homeschool, pay for a private school, or just grit their teeth and bear it. The latter option is the most common, given that most families can’t homeschool and private schools are not necessarily more likely to serve their children’s needs.

I don’t believe that changing the word we use for these students will change attitudes (though I do advocate for changing the word - scroll down in this pdf to find my article). I believe that what we need is a fundamental change in the way our culture looks at intellectual ability. I believe we need to embrace it the way we embrace other qualities in our children. To do this doesn’t require us to believe that gifted children are better in any way – all children are precious, each as an individual human. All that’s required is that we accept that humans come in a range of colors, sizes, personalities, and abilities, and that we need to meet each child where he or she is in order to serve the child’s needs.

Until we make this shift in our culture, I fear that nothing fundamental can be done to insure that we are serving the needs – academic, social, and emotional – of high ability learners. You can’t help someone go the right direction if you refuse to pick them out of the crowd and show them the way.

The g-wordThis blog is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page inaugural Blog Hop on The “G” Word (“Gifted”). To read more blogs in this hop, visit this Blog Hop at

Posted in Avant Parenting, Culture Critic, Education.

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Why we’re homeschooling high school

There are some homeschoolers who start in high school. Usually these are students who realize that they are wasting their time doing what someone else thinks is important because they have specific interests of their own that they want to pursue. Sometimes new high school homeschoolers are kids who are just having trouble figuring out which direction they’re going in.

But at the same time that new homeschoolers are starting, a sizable group of kids who have been homeschooled from a younger age go back to school during their high school years. The reasons that parents cite largely fall into a few categories: 1) lifestyle needs – usually a parent who needs to go back to work; 2) homeschooling anxiety – the parent fears that s/he isn’t advanced enough to teach a high schooler; or 3) college fears – parents start to worry that their student will not be “well-rounded,” will look too unusual to colleges, or won’t be able to fulfill requirements.

We’re now nearly a full school year into our first year of homeschooling high school, and I wanted to write about how we have managed all three of those objections. Homeschooling high school is working fabulously well for us and for our son.

Lifestyle needs

I completely understand a parent’s need to get on with a career, have more flexibility, or just more personal time. Since my son has been maturing, I have felt a strong urge to focus more on my work and spend less time carting kids around from one destination to another.

Our high school homeschooling style, however, works perfectly with my needs. One of the things that I’ve focused on since he was in sixth grade is transitioning the burden of his education from me to him. What I mean by that is that traditionally, parents, teachers, and schools take on the role of pushing education into students. In homeschool, however, the goal should be to have students take on more and more of the responsibility for their education. Now that my son is in 9th grade, he is able to do a lot of his educational activities with very little involvement from me. I am “teaching” him two subjects: geometry and literature. Next year, that will be cut down to literature. By 11th grade, I fully expect him to be learning largely independently from me, with support only in the areas of scheduling and transportation.

And even in those areas, he is gaining independence. This year he started to take the bus for some of his transportation, freeing him to be able to take classes at times that are inconvenient for me. And because we use a shared online calendar system, he has been able to take on a larger role in maintaining his schedule.

Homeschooling anxiety

I remember the day when I realized that my son’s knowledge of programming outstripped mine. I had put together a club of kids who wanted to learn programming, and we were learning Alice, which is a visual programming environment built on top of Java. My son was able to explain why something didn’t work in terms of the underlying Java, and I didn’t get what he was saying. That was the day I stopped trying to “teach” him.

Community college

Spot the homeschooler! Lots of homeschoolers take classes at community colleges, where their classmates are often surprised to find out that they’re younger.

Yet his computer science education has not stopped. It doesn’t matter that I can no longer teach him—I have been supporting his learning in other ways. I’ve helped him find appropriate classes, work with mentors, and hook up with other young programmers to do activities with.

A lot of homeschoolers look ahead to the high school years and get worried that they won’t be able to “teach” their children anymore. But I tend to use that word in quotation marks when writing about homeschooling because the ultimate goal of homeschooling should be that the parent doesn’t have to do any teaching. The parent is there as a guide and mentor. So yes, of course like everyone else I have anxiety about whether I am able to offer an appropriate education for him, but I try to channel that anxiety into finding new ways to access the education he needs. So far, we’ve been successful.

College fears

The major concern that homeschoolers cite for their high schoolers is that somehow homeschooling won’t prepare them for college, or that they won’t get into good colleges. I think this fear can be separated into two categories: truly putting together a good, rigorous high school education for your student, and then making your student look like s/he has had a good, rigorous high school education when it comes to filling out applications.

I have no concerns in the first category—I know that my son is getting an excellent education. Certainly, it’s not the same education he’d be getting in high school, but in most ways I think it’s superior. He has the time to delve deeply into the subjects he is most passionate about, and homeschooling allows him to just do the basics in areas he’s not so interested in. Schools require equal time for all subjects, resulting in kids who find much of their day boring and pointless. In homeschool, students have the time to shine in their areas of passion.

Concerning the college issue, I’m currently going on something like faith: First, every study of homeschoolers shows that they get into college and they do just fine. The studies are small and hardly rigorous, but homeschooling certainly doesn’t seem to have any measurable negative effects on college acceptance and performance. Second, I read about the experiences of homeschoolers who are further along in the process than we are, and I know that they in fact do get into college. Just like school kids, many of them get into their top choices, while others end up going to their backup schools. Just like school kids, many homeschoolers love their college experience, while others find that they’ve chosen the wrong school or the wrong major and need to readjust their plan part of the way through. Given all that I’ve read and seen with homeschoolers I know, I’m really not worried about my son getting into college. Now, whether he wants to go to college or straight to a high tech start-up is another question we may have to face…

Overall, I feel that our choice to continue homeschooling is the right one. As I see many of my son’s peers peeling off to attend schools, I feel no insecurity about our choice. As for our son, he has no hesitation. Each summer I ask him, “So, do you want to keep homeschooling or would you like to try out school this year?”

Without fail, he gives me an incredulous look and answers, “Go back to school? You’ve got to be kidding!”

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.