Archive for February 2011

Growing up without grades   Leave a comment

I remember watching a news story about a teen who was in trouble with the law.  The parents were being interviewed and made comments about how they couldn’t believe their son was involved in this crime – emphasizing that he was an A student after all. Their implication being that the morals of an A student must be higher than that of a C student.  Grades have become more than just a reflection of a student’s work, it has become something that defines and labels a student.

A few years ago, my older three kids were in Tae Kwan Do where my two boys earned their first degree black belts.  Their instructor was a wonderful man that we respected very much, but I could not agree with him about the emphasis he put on grades.  He regularly told the kids that they needed to get A’s to be successful in life and had a sign in the studio that read, “The A students of today are the leaders of tomorrow.” I understood where he was coming from and that he just wanted the kids to do well in school – but there is an underlying belief in our culture that a kid’s future success hangs in the balance and it is determined by their grades.  Mainstream thought pushes the ‘get good grades’ mantra from earliest elementary school.  School, for kids then, becomes a place in which to perform.  Children see that ‘A’ students are treated differently than ‘C’ students – they may even see that in their own families between siblings. They learn very early on that grades matter in how they are viewed and treated by others, and even how they view themselves.  

The intense stress placed on earning A’s from the time a child is five years old until they graduate can take the joy of learning out of school.  Learning is not done for the sake of learning, it’s done to be able to receive an extrinsic reward at the end of a class with a grade that will determine how others view you.  School becomes a place that does not really encourage a love of learning.  Studying is done because one wants to be able to receive a grade needed to keep up a desired grade point average or for elementary school age kids – to avoid negative feedback from disappointed parents. Children enter school with great expectations, but as the years go by, many become disenchanted and burned out, but often have no other choice than to keep plodding through.  It’s a game – play it right, especially in high school with all the activities that are crammed in to look good on a college application – and they will have a ticket to ‘success.’

Success depends on how one defines it.  Our culture says in order to succeed a child must get A’s in school, so then they can get into the right university – because after all, one doesn’t want to end up going to a technical school.  That will determine the kind of good paying job that is landed – because, of course, all successful people need to live in the right house in the right part of town, drive the right car and vacation in all the right destinations.  There you have it;  success.  Really?  It actually seems kind of empty and I think many people who have driven themselves hard down this road since their schooling days eventually come to question this definition of success. 

Our homeschooling environment does not include grades.  I never thought about it actually.  I can see the need for a teacher to have graded tests so she can track the progress of an entire class, but that isn’t necessary in a homeschooling setting.  I can see whether or not my children understand and are learning.  If they do not understand something or made errors on some work, then they go over it again and fix it.  I find no need to place a grade on learning.  We learn because it’s interesting and even if they don’t find something particularly interesting like say, grammar – I try to help them understand the need to learn it as a part of becoming an educated, well rounded person. 

For us, pursuing knowledge is not done to be rewarded with a grade, but to understand the value of educating yourself throughout a lifetime – not just equating education with formal schooling.  They are free to learn without being labeled because of the grades they earn.


Posted February 27, 2011 by The Nonconformist Mom in education, homeschooling

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Lessons from Charlotte’s Web   1 comment

 Books are an amazing thing. They speak to us and what we hear may be determined where we are at in life. A phrase may swiftly be read over in one reading, but may jump out at us when read again at another time.

 I recently read Charlotte’s Web for the fourth time.  Years ago I first read it to my now nineteen year old and continued on through our children to the present, where my four and seven year olds enjoyed this sweet tale. I have been at different stages in my adult life at each of the readings and with this most recent one, some of the book’s wisdom had resounded with me.

At one point in the story, Wilbur, the pig, is making plans for his day. For one hour he planned to stand perfectly still and think of what it is to be alive. What wisdom we can learn from simple Wilbur. We are a culture of doing and we seldom learn to just ‘be’.  Can most of us even imagine just ‘being’ for one hour in today’s world?  We may have a lot of down time sitting in front of the tv or computer, but to just ‘be’ and meditate on what it is to be alive, as Wilbur suggested, is something foreign to most of us.  In our doing culture we want to be productive and see the immediate results of how our time has been spent.  When we take the time to ‘be’ we are able to reflect on life, connect with God, and learn more about ourselves.  Those results generally are not seen immediately, but over time we see we are more closely connected with God and walk through life with an inner peace. Wilbur understood what God has been telling us in his Word; “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters” (Psalm 23:2 KJV).

What about our children? Does our culture allow for them to enjoy the green pastures and still waters? In the story, eight year old Fern spends her afternoons sitting in the barnyard watching the animals. What a wonderful way for a child to spend her time. If Fern were a child today her days may look very different; soccer practice on Monday, dance on Tuesday, soccer practice on Wednesday, piano lesson and soccer practice on Thursday with McDonalds in the van on the way to Girl Scouts, soccer game on Friday and attending her brother’s swim meet all day on Saturday. In a culture of doing and achieving, a schedule like that is a reality for many children and it makes for long days if they have already spent much of it in school.  Even when children are home, they are bombarded with constant media presence – computer, Wii, facebook, tv, ipod, texting – the lure of these things is strong and it’s easy to keep our minds occupied at all times with, for the most part, useless garbage.  We push our children to do and accomplish, and equipt them with technology, yet we forget they need time for quiet reflection and at times, to just sit and observe the world. 

Sometimes it takes the simplest among us, like a barn yard pig, to remind us to step back and listen to what God has been telling us all along.

Posted February 22, 2011 by The Nonconformist Mom in childhood

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Homeschooling History… forget the dates and tell me a great story   1 comment

“In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  This is a cute little ditty many kids have memorized to help them remember this date in history.  But the purpose of remembering it isn’t to really learn something interesting about history – but to be able spit it out for a test.  I think this is why many kids over the years have disliked learning history – it’s presented as a list of dry dates and facts about wars, presidential terms and discoveries. 

History, in our 15 years of homeschooling has been learned mostly through books – real books, not textbooks – that tell the stories of people’s experiences throughout history.  I don’t require memorizing dates – if they need to know the date of the Boston Massacre they can look it up.  But they can learn about what it might have been like growing up in Boston during its occupation of British troops, by seeing it through the eyes of a young boy who must get through the mobs on the streets to bring help to his aunt who is enduring a difficult labor.  Now that’s history.  Instead of learning dates and the sequences of invasions during WWII, we’ve read great stories and watched excellent movies about the people who lived through it.  The Endless Steppe – about a family exiled to Siberia, Number the Stars – about a Danish family in 1943, Return to Auschwitz tells of the experiences of a girl and her mother who survived Auschwitz – these are just a few of the many books we’ve enjoyed.  We’ve supplemented our learning with great movies such as Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas which have given us great insight to that time in history. 

I can’t tell you the exact date of the Louisiana Purchase, I do know the time frame is the very earliest years of the 1800’s – and I don’t require my kids to know it either.  To be honest, unless you’re going to be a history professor or write a book about it, who cares.  But watching Lewis and Clark by Ken Burns on PBS a few years ago, brought their amazing journey through this newly bought land to life.  We learned about whom these people really were, clues to their personalities, what their journey meant to America and Native Americans alike.

We may not know the dates of presidential terms – heck – I’d have to think a second to remember when Obama became president much less try to remember when Benjamin Harrison was president.  But I do know that Benjamin Harrison was in office when the White House was wired for electricity – so that must put his term somewhere in the later 1800’s.  Good enough.  A fun tidbit is that he and his wife were so afraid of getting shocked by the light switches that they continued to use gas lanterns.   Reading that Abraham and Mary Lincoln had four sons – but that three of their sons died at the ages of 3, 11 and 18 years, brings to life his humanness and that he was more than just a great president, but a father who lived with great loss.   That’s what brings presidential history to life, learning what made them real people, not just the formal events that are recorded in textbooks.  

What is history after all, but people’s perception of what was experienced.  Learning American history is more complete if you read it from the viewpoint of white settlers and Native Americans.  The World War II experience on the American home front is very different viewed from the eyes of a Japanese American in an internment camp compared to the experience of a mid western housewife heading to work in the factories after being inspired by ‘Rosie the Riveter’ propaganda posters.  A greater understanding is gained when we see history through the eyes of more than one type of people. 

In homeschooling history, we may not be able to tell you many dates – but we can sure tell you some great stories about some great people, some not so great people, some everyday people – rich and poor and how they experienced the world and the events of their time.

Posted February 19, 2011 by The Nonconformist Mom in education, homeschooling

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“Planting Seeds in This Old House” 2nd place essay winner at school   Leave a comment

     Our house is not one that would catch your attention if you were to drive down our street. It does not stand grandly behind a beautifully landscaped yard. It is not cloaked in fashionable siding of the latest color combinations. Nor does it reside in the sought after suburbs of the upper middle class. It is a simple, humble house; plain, practical and nothing more.

     Careful inspection of the house, built in 1926, reveals evidence of eras gone by. A black stain on the hardwood, dining room floor left by a parlor stove from the 1920’s, reminds us of a time before the comforts of central heating.  A grate, cut into the floor of the upstairs bathroom, lets the heat of the kitchen rise up to help warm those taking a bath on cold Saturday nights. The lack of electrical outlets in the bathroom tells of a time before hair dryers and curling irons. The discovery of a well underneath the garage floor brings us back to a time in history when indoor plumbing was a novelty for the well to do and city dwellers, while those in rural areas and the working class pumped their water outside. Hidden layers of paint in the stylish colors that defined its decade and hardwood floors covered with vinyl, indicate the desire to have a home that appeared modern and fashionable.

     The simplicity does not just apply to the house itself, but also to those who have lived within its walls. In 1948, a man, who was to spend his life working for a concrete company, and his wife, a daughter of rural immigrants, bought this house and raised five children in it. While talking with her, she told me that this house seemed like a castle compared to the rural home in which she grew up.  The love this couple poured into their family is evident when their children and grandchildren have come by to visit their childhood home and share their fond memories with us.

     1993 was the year we made this house our home and like the family that preceded us, five children call this house, home. We made many improvements in those early years; a new roof, new windows, a new driveway are to name a few. But as more children grew to fill its rooms, money for home improvements grew less available. Decades old, dry rotted garage doors still need a strong pull to come rumbling closed. Weathered, rotting window trim and boards are replaced as needed, but hoping someday for a vinyl facelift.  A front porch, adorned with 1950’s wrought iron peppered with rust spots, aches to be redone in stylish, vinyl wrapped pillars and rails.

     Despite its need for update and repair, this old house still provides what is needed to make rich memories. The memories of summers spent with children playing matchbox cars on the front porch, or taking a welcome respite on the front porch swing on a hot, humid day. Memories of watching rain pour over the porch’s eaves on a warm, summer’s evening and listening to the deep tones of the copper wind chime, turned green with time, but ever faithful in its song. For over eighty years, adults and children alike, have enjoyed the deep clawfoot bathtub which now provides our family with relaxation and fun. These memories cannot be made better with home improvements.

     Along with memories being made, life lessons are being taught and learned in this house. Through homeschooling, we are learning to see education with new eyes and to think outside of the box. We have learned that family life can be difficult and that marriage boils down to commitment.

     As the children of this house make their way into the world and pursue their dreams, I hope they remember that the seeds of those dreams were planted here, in this plain, practical, simple house. Like a wise, old man, bent over and weathered by the passing of years and the experiences of life; this battered, worn house proudly stands to show its imperfections and scars that come with living a full life.

Posted February 14, 2011 by The Nonconformist Mom in Uncategorized

The most dreaded sight on a homeschooling day out… school buses   1 comment

One of the great benefits to homeschooling is the freedom to go places on our time schedule.  Museums, parks, orchards, beaches – all are fairly quiet Monday through Fridays during the school year.  I’d rather sit on a cacus than to go to these places on a weekend.  But there have been times when our family has sought out a quiet, peaceful filled weekday afternoon at one of these places only to pull up and see the most dreaded sight – school buses.  I have used these unfortunate times to observe how children behave in these large groups and I don’t like what I see. 

Some years ago we went to Old World Wisconsin in May.  It is a large living history ‘museum’ where you walk around to old time farms, homes and a town with people dressed in period clothing to tell about life from that time.  There happened to be a field trip there, but we managed to avoid them until we got to the town church where it was jammed packed with jr. high kids being led in a hymn sing by a lady dressed in period clothing.  One obnoxious girl began literally screaming the words to the hymn – looking for attention and I’m sure thinking her actions made her ‘cool’.  We talked to the women afterwards about the church and the school group.  She said she does not enjoy it when field trips come through – it always the same ‘crap’. 

We recently enjoyed going to a bird exhibit at a local museum.  The museum was empty and quiet.  At the end of the exhibit is a children’s area for doing art, puzzles and play.   We all quietly sat for about a half an hour drawing birds with the help of ‘how to’ books and listened to various bird calls that were playing.  The kids enjoyed the time so much, they wanted to return at the change of exhibits which would be the following month.  We did go, but somehow my eyes had missed seeing the parked school buses and the children’s area was anything but peaceful.  Chaos was more like it.  Kids were bouncing from activity to activity, not putting time and thought into anything – and really how can any thought be put into anything without a quiet atmosphere in which to think?  Teachers were slowly pacing around, watching the time and looking tired.  I wonder what those kids really got out of the day.

I remember the anticipation of going on a field trip when I was a kid.  It didn’t really matter where we were going – it was just the fact that we were going to be out of school.  Out in the world and free from the daily classroom environment.  I know that’s what the kids on those school buses feel, I felt the same. 

I don’t think it’s a matter of school vs. homeschool because we avoid homeschool field trips with our homeschool group as well.  Something happens to kids when they congregate in large groups – the stimulation from their peers seems to make them uninterested and unengaged, focusing more on each other and often looking to be the center of attention.  Obnoxious, loud behavior is common as kids try to look cool in the eyes of their peers. 

I am thankful for the opportunity to be the one who enjoys museums and such with my children on a regular basis.  Not only do they get to really be able to take the time to look at what they want to see, but I learn as well.  We recently went to an auto museum because of my 15 year old’s interest in cars and were delighted to be the only people there.  He got to see something he enjoyed and the rest of us learned more about his interest. 

After earlier encounters with field trips, I now try to call ahead to see if there are any planned.  But sometimes, it’s unavoidable and we have to deal with the swarm of school children that get off of the big yellow buses.  I try to use it as a time to observe and be thankful for home education.

Posted February 12, 2011 by The Nonconformist Mom in Uncategorized

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