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As promised, this is one of two posts I’m going to write on our trip to Belize and Guatemala (July 16-22, 2017) This one will be about the the practicalities, with tips and mini-reviews, and the other will be on the food, which was consistently great.

Why in the world did you go? Should we?

We went on this trip because my 12-year old has a strong and serious interest in Mayan history and archaeology, his brother was doing another out-of-town activity for the week, and I gave him the chance to pick a destination, and this – specifically Tikal – was it.

There are 2000 Mayan sites in Guatemala alone (some just one mound covering a temple, but still…), some quite extensive. Tikal is the most well known, but is close to some other very interesting sites, so we decided to make it the focus of the trip.

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There are other reasons to go to this part of the world. A lot of North Americans head down there for recreational and adventure reasons – you see more of it in Belize, which is becoming a very popular destination, not only for tanned retirees heading to fish, but families and young people as well. People go diving, fishing, caving and tubing. It’s a popular cruise ship stop. There are lots of all-inclusive resorts (including three owned by Francis Ford Coppola) and it’s popular with North Americans because the first language of Belize is English, they take US dollars everywhere, and the exchange rate is easy to figure out on the fly (basically 2:1 Belize:US).

Guatemala has plenty to recommend in this regard as well, and more, considering the geographical diversity of the country.

People also go to Guatemala for the family and cultural connections they have, and to do mission work. Our flights into and out of Belize each had at least two mission groups aboard, and I saw more than a few vans on the road crammed with blonde-haired Anglos and guitar cases visible through the back window – I assumed they were mission groups ,too. Was I wrong? Maybe, but I doubt it.

So. Should you go?

If you want to, sure!

I felt safe and, after a day or two of adjustment, at ease in the culture. Everyone is very friendly and helpful, and the sites we saw were fascinating. There were many American and European families with younger kids at Tikal – none at the other sites we visited, but then, we were mostly the only people at those sites, anyway, so…..

If Mayan culture interests you or you want to expose your family to that part of our hemisphere’s history, Tikal and the other sites are great. If you have never done anything like this before, it might be a little easier to start in Mexico with Chichen Itza and Uxmal, perhaps using Merida and Campeche as bases or Cancun if that is your thing (although crime is becoming more of a problem in the Mexican resorts, it seems, so I’m not so sure about that…).

Or, if you want your family to experience ancient American cultures…try the Southwest. No, it’s not the Temple of the Jaguar, but it’s still interesting and important to understand.

As for the other activities in the area, they don’t hold much appeal for me at this point. When it comes to outdoor type of activities there’s so much in this country that I haven’t experienced – the Florida Keys, the Rocky Mountains, the Northwest – that any energy for that kind of thing that I have…I’ll direct to those places.

How Should I Get There?

When I first started planning, I assumed we would fly in and out of Guatemala City – until I figured out how far it is from Peten, the area in which theruins that are our focus are located. It would be an 8-9 hour drive unless I wanted to fly from Guatemala City to Flores – which is expensive.

So the next possibility was Belize City, which is what I ultimately decided on. Weirdly, it was cheaper to fly from Birmingham to BC than Atlanta to BC – I mean, I’m happy about that, but that’s not the norm and I don’t know why it was so.

Another option is Flores, which is right there.  Unfortunately flying into Flores from either Birmingham or Atlanta was far too expensive. However, if you can fly, for example, out of Houston, the fare is very decent. So if you can get to a major hub in the southwest, check out the fares for Flores.

I worked this journey as two separate flights. I had enough miles to get us down there on American at no charge, but not enough for a round trip, and the AA flights back were at bad times and expensive. So I opted to fly United, one-way, back from BC. This would have been a lot cheaper if we lived in South Florida or Texas…just sayin’.

Should I Drive?

All right. It depends. I won’t bore you with the back-and-forth I went through in my head on this. Well, not much of it, anyway.

I am a very independent traveler. I like to be in control of my own destiny, at all times. The long-haul public transportation in Belize and Guatemala is confusing and not great, especially in Belize. So, should I drive? My reflexive answer was not “NO!” and in fact, I did consider it.

The real question before I went was renting a car and taking it across the border. It can be done, but it adds a level of complication to the border crossing between Belize and Guatemala that might already be fraught. You have to drive the car through fumigation portals, etc, plus there’s the documents you have to have…yeah. And then you’d have to do it again. All that.

But I will say that after spending a week being driven around Belize and Guatemala, if I were going to do anything like it again, here’s what I would do.

First, though: if you are a timid driver – forget it. Don’t even try. I’m not a timid driver, so given that I see how it all works now, if I went back, and were only going to be in one of the countries, I’d drive, with a couple of caveats.

I’d drive in Belize, no question. The roads are fine, and the driving doesn’t seem too crazy. I wouldn’t drive in Belize City, but then I wouldn’t drive in any foreign city if I could help it.

Secondly, I would sort of  drive in Guatemala. Maybe. Sometimes.

It would be considerably more challenging, but having seen those challenges, I could manage. Yes, the roads are not smooth. Yes, there are people on the side of the road, including little kids some of whom are dragging machetes because every male seems to carry a machete around in rural Guatemala. Yes, there are dogs, horses, chickens and pigs on the side of and often in the road. Yes, there are frequent and potentially damaging speed bumps. Yes, there are loads of motorcycles, perhaps 3% of which are being driven by people wearing helmets, and a surprising number of those motorcyclists are transporting small children and babies. My favorite was: 2 adults on one cycle, with a toddler in between them and a baby in a carrier strapped to the driver’s front.

But yeah, I could do it. However….

The roads leading to most of the ruins except for Tikal are terrible. Even Yaxha, which is a major site, and perhaps the most visited in the area after Tikal, involved about 8 miles of really rough road.  Even if I had the most comprehensive insurance on the planet (which is what I would have), I would be extremely tense about driving those roads myself because, well, what if something happened? I can change a tire, but you know what? I really don’t want to, especially in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country.

And since visiting sites would be our major interest…there’s no reason to spend 70/80 bucks a day on a car that I’d have a nervous breakdown driving because I’d be afraid of puncturing a tire or the gas tank or whatever. And I wouldn’t drive at night. Yeah, all that. So while I don’t particularly like being dependent on others for my transportation, it really doesn’t make any sense to do otherwise. Jesus, take the wheel.

Conclusion?

Renting and driving a car in Belize and Guatemala is expensive, and if you did this, you’d want plentiful insurance coverage (and would be required to get it if you rented in Belize and traveled to Guatemala), which makes it even more expensive.

For long distances, you can take buses, but the Belize buses are not great – don’t know about the Guatemala buses. Mexico has really nice buses, but Belize, at least, doesn’t have that kind of service at this point.

In communities, taxis and collectivos (vans) and tuk-tuks (in Flores and probably other places) are plentiful and inexpensive. Everyone, it seems to me, uses taxis to get around because relatively few people actually own cars. You have a motorcycle, probably, but if you need to carry things or take more people, you just get a taxi, no big deal.

In addition, there are plenty of shuttle services, and every taxi driver you encounter will amywelborn78nose about for more business: So…are you going to Tikal? Do you need a driver? Are you going to the airport? Do you need a driver tomorrow for that? But if you do go long distances via shuttle, build that cost in. So, for example, this past Saturday, I paid $100 (50 each) for us to be driven in a shuttle from San Ignacio, Belize to the Belize Airport, about 73 miles away, with a 90-minute stop at the Belize Zoo. I wish I didn’t have to spend that kind of money, but in the end, hiring a driver ends up being not that much more expensive than renting a car in these countries, and while you don’t have the freedom to go anywhere whenever, you have freedom from stress about responsibility for driving mishaps. Life, as I like to say, is a trade-off.

Where Should I Stay?

Again, I’m writing this for people interested in Tikal and other nearby sites, so I’ll start with Tikal.

If you look at a map, you’ll see several possibilities. People do day trips to Tikal from spots in Belize, as well as closer Guatemalan communities like El Remate and Flores. It’s certainly possible, but there are advantages to staying in the park itself.

The best times to experience Tikal are in the morning and late afternoon. Not surprisingly, those late morning and earlier afternoon hours get hot, plus the jungle is quieter during those hours, as the animals are sensible and taking a rest as well. So to experience the jungle and the ruins in their fullest, in the most convenient way – it makes sense to stay in one of the three hotels located in the park.

It makes particular sense if you’re going to do the Sunrise tour, which necessitates you start walking to Temple IV at about 4:30 am. Adding an hour drive to that would be…torture.

There are three hotels in the park: The Jungle Lodge, the Jaguar Inn and the Tikal Inn.

All are located near each other in the same area. We stayed at the Jungle Lodge, and I was very happy with the accommodations. They are separate cabins that were constructed originally back in the 1950’s for the team from the University of Pennsylvania that was excavating the ruins.

(Here’s an article published in 1970 upon the completion of the team’s work. 

Here’s a set of really interesting archival videos on the project – they are silent and just that – archival – but interesting to dip into.)

The bungalows are very clean – as was my experience in all three places we stayed. There is no air conditioning, but there is a ceiling fan. The unusual thing about this to keep in mind is that most electricity is turned off during certain hours in the middle of the day and from about 10:30 pm to 7 am or so – with the ceiling fans being on a separate generator that keeps running. But if you get up for that Sunrise Tour, if you haven’t brought flashlights (we did), you’ll need your cell phone flashlight, which probably isn’t great. You should take a flashlight anyway because you’ll need it for the walk to Temple IV for the Sunrise Tour, and if you go to another onsite restaurant in the evening, you’ll need it for walking on the grounds – there are no streetlights around the parking lot, it’s pitch black and the great thing? The stars.  I’d never seen them so bright and in such an array. It’s what I had hoped to see at the Grand Canyon but didn’t. Gorgeous.

So yes, the Jungle Lodge is more expensive than other accommodations in towns outside the park, but again – everything has a cost, and it’s up to you what currency you want to use – do you want to pay with money or do you want to pay with the extra time and hassle of being an hour away from the park? I’d say it’s worth it to spend at least one night in the park.

The restaurant at the Jungle Lodge is not what I expected and I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you have nowhere else to go (and there are other places – the other two hotels both have restaurants, and during the day, there are comedors – or small restaurants just down the road. The comedors only take cash though, so be prepared.). The service was fine and the food wasn’t terrible, but it was oddly enough, not at all Guatemalan, Central American or even vaguely Hispanic. It was mostly sort of Italian. Weird and overpriced.

In Flores, we stayed at a hotel owned by the same people – the Isla de Flores. Very nice – good sized room and bathroom. The best noise-blocking windows I’ve ever experienced in a hotel. Could have used them in Madrid where the party just gets started at midnight…

Bookending the trip, we stayed at Martha’s Guesthouse in San Ignacio, Belize. I highly recommend it. Very nice people running the place and the room we stayed in was very large, with a balcony.

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Miscellaneous Tips:

  • When you cross the Guatemala-Belize border, you’ll be immediately swarmed on either side by men offering to exchange money. Don’t do it. I had gotten Guatemalan money before we went – I usually don’t do that, but I knew I would need cash right away to buy Tikal tickets (next tip), so I made an exception this time. It might be a good idea to do the same, but there are secure ATM’s in banks all over the place – not in villages, but in towns.
  • Make sure you understand the process for buying Tikal tickets – research it or if you have a guide, he or she will explain it. Because of long lines, delays and corruption, the government took Tikal ticket-selling away from the park and you must buy them at a branch of a certain bank now – there is a branch at the border and at the airport and other places, but just be prepared. You have to pay cash and know exactly what kind of tickets you want because there are no tickets sold at the park.
  • They take American dollars all over Belize. They also took them in souvenir shops in Flores and at the shops and snack places around the Tikal park. I would advise downloading a currency exchange app on your phone to avoid conflict and confusion – you can just punch it numbers and show it to the clerk or server – end of argument. If you think you might use US dollars in Guatemala, make sure they are clean, unmarked and not too folded or wrinkled. The problem, as our guide explained, is that the Guatemalan banks will not accept US dollars that are in less than good condition – so if a vendor accepts one and tries to deposit them and they’re rejected – they’ve lost that money.
  • San Ignacio, Belize and Flores Guatemala are full of tourists. Young American and European backpackers and adventurers, retired Americans and lots of students. It’s got that kind of vibe – a mix of locals hustling to make a living, mostly off the tourists, and the tourists hoping what they’re experiencing is “authentic” – San Ignacio is much more ramshackle than Flores, though.
  • The tourist-centered economy of these places means that they’re full of tour companies. Choose wisely and read reviews. Plan ahead if you want (I did) but I think it’s easy to pick up a guide or join a tour on short notice.
  • Internet: I have a cel-phone plan through T-Mobil that provides free service overseas. The data is slow, but it’s there. I had access through my phone in most places except in Tikal. It was weird – we trekked through various other jungles that were more isolate than Tikal, and I had access in those places, but not in Tikal. The hotels all had wi-fi, but the Jungle Lodge’s service was provided only in the lobby and at the pool and it was terrible. Everywhere else, the wi-fi was fine. Now. Before anyone scolds about “just unconnect! Be free!” – listen to me.  I am a single mom, who had one minor child up in Chicago while I was in Guatemala. I needed to be available. My finances are all on me – no one else – and I needed to keep an eye on my bank account and credit card account to make sure there were no ATM or other shenanigans brewing. Wi-Fi wasn’t important because I wanted to check Facebook. It was important because most of life is on the internet now, for good or for ill, I’m the head of the household with responsibilities that are all on my shoulders, so yeah…making sure I’m in range is important. No apologies.
  • We prepared, health-wise, by loading up on probiotics for a couple of weeks before. It probably wasn’t necessary. We were very careful and never drank tap water – I don’t think most natives do either – and were fine.
  • Do take good insect repellent. I got this one, and it worked great. We were in a rainforest amid swarms of mosquitos, and they didn’t touch us.
  • What did we pack? Our clothes filled one small satchel. M wore hiking boots and packed his sandals. I took hiking sandals and tennis shoes. We each had a backpack – mine is one I bought for the 2012 trip that holds a camera in the bottom and has a laptop sleeve. I took regular camera, phone, laptop and chargers for each. We had journals and pens, and a couple of books. Two small flashlights, insect repellent, the usual toiletries and basic first aid (band aids, itch cream, antibiotic cream) that I always travel with plus Pepto-Bismol and After-Bite. I wasn’t sure about the Jungle Lodge electricity situation – I knew they turned the power off at night, and didn’t know if that included the fans or not, so I bought a small cheap cordless fan and took that. I didn’t “need” it, as it turned out, but it did add some extra breeze on those two nights.

 

Should I Hire a Tour Guide?

Unless you yourself are an expert on Matters Mayan, yes. You can get the basics about Tikal from a book, but having a good guide puts it all in context. You must have a guide for the Sunrise Tour. The other sites we saw are incomprehensible without prior knowledge or a guide. There was English signage at Tikal, but everywhere else was Spanish only, ,which is decipherable for me, but very basic. As I said above, you can easily grab a guide on site or in one of the outside towns, but I needed a guide and driver for the entire week, so I made arrangements ahead of time – based on recommendations on the TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet discussion boards, I went with Marlon Diaz of Gem Guatemala Travel. It was a great decision – he was smart, flexible, deeply knowledgeable and a great animal spotter as well.  Here’s my TripAdvisor review of his service. 

So there you go…I might add to this as the day goes on and more occurs to me. Ask questions if you like either in the comments or to amywelborn60 – at – gmail – dot- com.

 

Tomorrow: the food. And that will be it for blogging on it – look for an ebook with a complete account in a few weeks, I hope. 

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I’m in Living Faith again today. Two days in a row is unusual – you won’t see me there again until the end of August, though.

"amy welborn"

 

(Five entries per quarter is the norm)

To the left is the visual aid for that entry:

In it, I talk about my struggles to write fiction. As it happens, last week I revisited a YA novel I wrote several years ago. I actually got an agent to represent it, and she sent it out to a lot of publishing houses – and of course it was rejected. There were decent comments that came out of the rejections, though, as well as the consistent claim that while the writing was good, they couldn’t sell it. Positioned as a YA novel, since it did not involve dystopia, vampires or shopping…there was no niche for it, I suppose.

I hadn’t looked at it in a long time, but last week, I found it on my old computer, rescued the file, and read through it. Hey, this isn’t terrible.  So I think what I’m going to do is publish it on Amazon via CreateSpace. I have a bit of editing to do on it – to update some tech references and clean up some errors and weaker writing. I’ll do that after our trip to Guatemala and probably have it ready in August sometime.

It’s not perfect, but it never will be, and that’s okay. I think enough readers will find it and enjoy it to make the effort worthwhile.  Which is the point of today’s entry, really.

And I am working on another couple of pieces of fiction, one short and one long – plus I’m probably going to have at least one more non-fiction book to work on over the course of the next year. I’m waiting on the details of that to be worked out.  Which is another reason unschooling will be the preferred pedagogy for 7th grade….

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— 1 —

Are you in the Long Island area, or able to get there easily?

Ann Engelhart and I will be giving a talk at the library of the Theological Library of the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington.   PDF flyer is here. 

Come see and hear us, and say hello! I’ll probably be wearing the same dress I have on in the headshot! Because I own maybe four dresses and only really like one of them!

I’ll be in the area for a few days before that with one of my younger sons.

— 2 —

Well, by the time most of you read this Summer Will Have Begun. One has been out of school for a week, and is busy working at his two jobs (one for The Man and the other a less formal arrangement, but $$$ nonetheless), and the other finishes up school on Friday. And by “finishes,” I mean…finishes. By his own choice. More on that…later. For his part, he might put it this way:

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And as for me? I’m like:

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Really!

— 3 —

The whole job thing for the 16-year old means that summer might be weird, and not as travel heavy as before. I am trying not to look back at we were doing exactly a year ago today:

A time for everything…everything has its season…just keep repeating and be grateful….

It’s okay, really. We do have a bit of travel planned (New York, obviously), and on the days that my son has off, we’ll be exploring our own area with gusto. Younger son and I have a big trip planned in July for a week during which older son will be away at an academic kind of activity in Chicago.

So, no. No complaints. Just gratitude. Lots and lots of gratitude for it all, past and especially present.

— 4 —

No listening this week – the weather has been rainy and chilly, so I haven’t been walking – which is my listening time. I did read, though. I sped through this one.

Peter Andreas’ parents were Kansas-born Mennonites who married in the late 1950’s – his mother was quite young – just seventeen – when they wed. As the years went by, she…evolved and your normal, everyday Mennonite pacifism turned into an intense 60’s radicalism. The mother separated from the dad, filed for divorce, took the kids to Berkeley (of course) and then with Peter, the youngest, whom she basically kidnapped and headed to find a good revolution down in South America, first in Chile, then in Peru.

I usually avoid childhood-centric memoirs. I find it hard to trust the author’s memory, perhaps because my old childhood memories are so sketchy, and I have generally have no idea if I am really remembering something, remembering a photograph, or remembering a story I was told about what I think I’m remembering.

Take The Glass Castle, which so many loved.I was put off from the book’s opening story, which is a very detailed recollection of an admittedly traumatic event, but which Walls recounts in quite close detail including dialogue between her 3-year old self and others in the hospital. Sorry, I didn’t buy it, not for a second.

I had moments of skepticism in this one, too, but was ultimately won over by the fact that Andreas based the book, not only on his own memories, but on his mother’s voluminous and detailed journals – and other writings.

So I guess so….

Andreas seems to have survived this strange childhood, emotional and mental health intact, able to see his mother’s faults, forgive and hang on to the good fruit that came out of the situation, as much suffering as he endured

Anyway, it’s a fascinating, dreadful and ultimately hopeful story, even as it serves as warning to any of us parents, even if we have not grown into adulthood from our Mennonite youth then happened to kidnap our children and run off South America in search of revolution.

Basically: What of your own crap are you burdening your kids with? And can you please try to stop?

— 5 —

Speaking of books, via the blog Tea at Trianon, children prefer real books: 

There is a common perception that children are more likely to read if it is on a device such as an iPad or Kindles. But new research shows that this is not necessarily the case. In a study of children in Year 4 and 6, those who had regular access to devices with eReading capability (such as Kindles, iPads and mobile phones) did not tend to use their devices for reading – and this was the case even when they were daily book readers. Research also found that the more devices a child had access to, the less they read in general. It suggests that providing children with eReading devices can actually inhibit their reading, and that paper books are often still preferred by young people. These findings match previous research which looked at how teenagers prefer to read. This research found that while some students enjoyed reading books on devices, the majority of students with access to these technologies did not use them regularly for this purpose. Importantly, the most avid book readers did not frequently read books on screens. (Original Post)

As I was re-reading this (on a screen!), a thought popped into my head in answer to the question why? Because honestly, I prefer reading a book as a book myself – especially non-fiction and longer, more complex fiction. I wonder if childrens’ preference for the physical book has something to do with a sense of accomplishment. Children tend to like feeling as if they have completed something, built something, finished something – and can point to that thing and say, “I did that.”  Think about younger readers and the satisfaction they get from successfully reading a whole book – especially a chapter book! – all by themselves.  Swiping through a series of screens just would not (I wouldn’t think) produce that same feeling of satisfying accomplishment as being able to hold a physical book full of pages of lovely pictures and big words, snapping it shut, holding it out and crawing, I read this! 

— 6 —

People, I cannot tell you how many posts I have brewing in my brain, and one of them is an extra-screedy screedish rant on technology in school classrooms. It’s coming. Hold me to it.

— 7 —

Speaking of books….I posted this last week, but I still like it, so here you go – coming in a few months.

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It’s still May, so it’s a good time to read a free book about Mary. Originally published by Word Among Us, now out of print and available in a pdf version here.

Amy Welborn and Michael Dubruiel

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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A blog comment indicated that I was leaving the impression that my lack of follow-up on a promised homeschool takeaway post was perhaps because I was in agony about it.

Yikes, no.

The delay is due more to the fact that it’s hard for me to write about the topic succinctly. I tend to plunge in and just go on and on. I’m going to give myself 30 minutes from start to finish on this one, starting….now. 

But inspired by that nudge, I’ll start. I’ll begin with the personal takeaway, and follow up at another time with my Big Thoughts on Philosophical Issues. I was initially going to write about this in terms of “what I learned,” but as I thought about it, I realized that wasn’t quite and accurate characterization of my takeaway. It wasn’t about learning, it was more about things I knew, but perhaps didn’t know I knew…or didn’t know that I believed so deeply.

When in doubt, bullet points:

  • I didn’t realize how much I had internalized the system. I thought I was all flexible and open, but I wasn’t. Homeschooling freed me in a deep way from assuming that once a certain path is begun, that’s the only way. That is – you start high school at this certain school..does that mean you have to finish there? Does that mean you are locked into the 4-year School Family Treadmill? No.
  • I learned that I’m not an unschooler. Sad. Just couldn’t let go of some things.
  • I learned that the reason we divide fractions is by multiplying the dividend by the reciprocal of the divisor is because that’s what division is . (8 divided by 5 is the same as 8 multiplied by 1/5.  8/5.)
  • Now, I say that, not just as a fun fact, but as a representation of a larger point: I learned a lot through homeschooling. 
  • With the math, as I have said before, I’m not mathy but nor am I terrible at math, img_20160819_110905.jpgand I’ve used it enough to still remember most of everything through Algebra. But using the Art of Problem Solving curricula with my kids taught me a great deal, introduced me to the architecture of mathematics in a way that I had never experienced and was sorry I hadn’t – understanding math the AOPS way would have helped everything make so much more sense to me in high school. So with the fractions and division thing – it was always presented as just a rule, with no reason. Sort of a random weird thing you do when dividing fractions. But it’s not random! There’s a reason! And that reason helps a lot of other things – division itself, fractions, decimals – fall together in a reasonable pattern.
  • But oh, so much more. Stuff I once knew, but had forgotten, and so much I didn’t know – about science, history, art…
  • One of the most wonderful things about homeschooling to me was that I think my kids understood that we were indeed learning together. Yes, I can go on and on about certain subjects, and sometimes they both irritate and amaze me with their questions to me and I say, “Well, I guess I should be flattered that you think I am some sort of encyclopedic genius,” but for the most part our homeschool environment was one of mutual learning and exploration, with me providing resources, guiding and explaining when needed, but me also saying regularly, “Wow, I didn’t know that!”
  • I think it became clear to them that the proper way to look at a teacher is as both an authority and expert of sorts, but also as a co-learner. Not all teachers present themselves that way, of course, but be honest. It’s what we are. I am endlessly curious about almost everything – which is not always a good thing, as it can lead to never being able to just calm down and stop researching – and I hope that they picked up that curiosity and open-mindedness, along with some degree of authoritative understanding – makes for a good learning experience.
  • We were also exposed, on a daily basis, to the fluidity of knowledge. Over and over again we encountered points of information that would be presented in a traditional school textbook as just FACT but are in FACT being called into question by current research and new information.
  • I came to appreciate the sciences and engineering and related fields so very much. I think this is a huge takeaway for me. It is not that I didn’t admire those fields – it’s that I come from a total humanities background – English/history/religion/political science/philosophy. Hardly anyone in my family (which is small, so I don’t have a large study cohort to go on) went into any other field but those. Through the reading that we did, the videos that we watched, the programs that we attended, I came to really appreciate the sciences and related fields as truly creative, exciting areas which contribute so much to human flourishing, even at the most technical levels, and this became a point I communicated to the boys over and over.
  • It may not make sense to some, but my goal as a home educator eventually evolved to: Help them become humble, skillful, wise skeptics. 
  • Humble: so we know how little we know and are never closed.
  • Skillful: so we can do what we need to do (write, compute, make)  well
  • Wise: so our minds are in communion with the Word
  • Skeptics: so we know that all human things, including knowledge, are contingent and temporary
  • I learned a lot about my kids. I am not keen on writing a lot about them in a public space, but I will say that my sense of my older son’s aptitude for planning, logic and making connections was confirmed and deepened by our two years of homeschooling and my appreciation of my younger son’s enthusiastic embrace of All Things Nature was as well.
  • Homeschooling them is going to be of great help to me in advocating for them and guiding them as we not homeschool.
  • On a very practical level, homeschooling revealed to me how many resources there are out there – explicitly educational resources, as well as others – both in real life in the community and online.  I wouldn’t have known about them if I hadn’t been up until 1 am following rabbit trails. There is no excuse for having a boring classroom these days. None.
  • I’m about to run out of time. So I suppose my final takeaway will bleed into the next episode about broader issues.  It was confirmed for me, although I had felt it and it was indeed a reason I decided to homeschool in the first place, how much of a time and energy suck school is. We did “school” in at most three hours a day – not counting days when they did classes or activities outside the home – and although we were busy, home was a pretty relaxed place.  Now they are gone 8 hours a day and re-entry into the home is marked by a flurry of papers, the dream2mental effort for everyone to sort out what needs to be done and when and fatigue and the general, already
    aggravated wistful look forward to May.
  • Don’t get me wrong. There are good teachers teaching interesting things in ways that they could not experience at home and systems that are having to build up ways to help everyone accomplish and learn and I get it. I get the challenges. I’ve been there. It’s just taking some effort to not allow the system and its many often picayune requirements pollute that culture of open-minded, relaxed learning that we enjoyed for four years, and in some small way, to keep it alive here in the amount of time The School Family permits.
  • Trade-off. Just keep saying it. Trade-offs. 

(Other homeschooling posts here, here, here and here. At some point I’ll do a category for these.)

 

 

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Almost done, now.

One more practical post, and then next week, Big Thoughts.

Oh, and how is it going? Seems to be going well. It is very interesting to hear the experiences of a child experiencing school for the first time in four years, and with only the faintest memory of the last time, which was first grade. He’s been in classes in other settings, but of course, two hours once a month at the science museum or every other week at the zoo is a little different from…school. He’s pretty intrigued by the process. Aspects of classroom life that other students probably either take for granted or are tired of he finds interesting. It’s hard to explain. 

All right, I need to finish this part up. Let’s go. Yesterday, I outlined how we approached religious instruction. I probably should add that year before last was Confirmation year for the then-8th grader, and that was handled through an excellent school program.

As I have indicated so far, I didn’t homeschool so I could sit my kids down with books and worksheets. I was wanting to provide them with something different than what school was giving them, because I had come to see that school – as it was constructed, as they were experiencing it and as the Forces That Be are determined to make it – is not learning about the world in its complexity and depth, but about being rewarded for making the educational system’s priorities your priorities. Or at last pretending that they are.

What a way to spend almost every day of your life for twelve years.

So in terms of daily life – you can get a taste of it in the Daily Homeschool Report posts, which are all over the place – we did certain things almost every day, used a few textbooks in a few areas, did some drilling in things like cursive and math facts, but other than that tried to prioritize reading, discussing what we were reading and then experiencing life outside the home.

One or both of themselves participated in a lot of outside classes and activities.

McWane Science Center homechool classes

Birmingham Zoo homeschool classes

A Lego robotics group up in Madison, which is close to Huntsville. There was probably one in Birmingham, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find it, so I’m thinking there probably wasn’t one after all at the time. Both of them did it at first, but then the younger one lost interest, so we would go up there, J would do Lego robotics and M and I would go explore – we went to the Rocket Center a lot that fall.

Art classes at the Red Dot Gallery

An art class at Samford Academy of the Arts

Piano instruction through Samford

Boxing at Juarez Boxing

St. Thomas Aquinas Academy – drama and history of science

Weekly homeschool gym and social time on Friday afternoons

Those (except for the Red Dot classes and Piano) were for homeschoolers, particularly. During the time, they both did basketball every year, the older one did scouts, the younger one did children’s schola at the Cathedral for a year, they served Mass in the parish and the convent, and this past year, the younger one has become involved in Fraternus, a new Catholic boys’ and mens’ group.

Those were just the various regular activities. They also participated in various single events – like a rock climbing class, a class at the Birmingham Museum of Art, a field trip the Jones Valley Teaching Farm.

So…books. Interspersed in the post of photos of some of our bookshelves. To save me time.

Handwriting

This is important and awful to teach, unless you have a kid who gets into it. (I once was making conversation with a teen-aged homeschooled girl and I asked her what her favorite subject to study was. “Handwriting,” she said. So there’s one for you.)

But we forged on.

Writing our Catholic Faith

Wacky Sentences Handwriting Workbook

The older a kid got, the more work was done in cursive.

Copywork

I became a huge fan of copywork while homeschooling. If you want to read about the rationale behind it, go here. I think it is a very effective way of practicing the mechanics of handwriting and internalizing good writing. There are a lot of ways to use copywork. img_20160812_102749.jpgSometimes I took passages from books they were reading, interspersed into a more general schedule of that rotated Scripture passages, poetry, passages from literature and sayings/aphorisms. Fridays we did not do copywork – we either did “Friday Freewrite” – from the Brave Writer method – or they illustrated one of the previous week’s copywork passages.

Copywork is so much better than the stupid and invasive trend of beginning-of-class journaling writing prompts that you see in so many classrooms. Here’s a sample I pulled off of a website just now:

10. Persuade a friend to give up drugs.

11. Five years from now, I will be… 

12. Write about a day you’d like to forget. 

13. Invent and describe a new food. 
journal writing prompts
14. Describe an event that changed your life forever, or make up and describe an event that would change your life forever.

15.  Describe someone who is a hero to you and explain why. 

16.  Write about a time in your life when you struggled with a choice and made the right one. 

First of all, answering these prompts teach nothing. I suppose the purpose is to unleash the right brain or get juices flowing, but you have 50 minutes to teach – I don’t know if this is the best use of time.

But that’s not even my most serious problem with this type of activity. Look at those questions – and they are not atypical.

We have become accustomed to schools and educational systems getting personal with our kids. After all…we’re a school family. They’re given surveys on their family lives to fill out, they’re told to put personal information on tests, and they’re tested for drugs. Their reflections about and reactions to material they’ve learned rather than simply learning it and moving on. They’re asked “how do you feel” or “how would you feel” or “have you ever felt.”

Do you know what?

My kids’ memories of a day they would like to forget or an event that changed their lives forever or when they struggled with a choice….is none of their teachers’ business.

What a great day it would be, the day that a class began with kids copying out a passage from, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, noting the specifics of grammar, punctuation and appreciating the mode of expression – instead of being required to share their feelings about some aspect of their personal life with a 27 (or 45 or 60) -year old adult stranger who has a certain degree of power over them.

How about this? How about we tell our kids that if they are asked to “journal” in class in away that violates their privacy that it’s okay for them to just…. make stuff up? I have no problem with that.

People, I taught religion and I never crossed that line. I constantly made connections between what I was teaching – Scripture, history, theology – and the rest of life, and I invited and challenged my students to think about those connections and told them that faith was indeed, all about making those connections and living them, but I never asked them to write personal reflections on anything for me to read. I consider that kind of stuff inappropriate and even an abuse of authority in a classroom setting where students are required to attend and are giving you work on which you will give them a grade that will go on their transcripts.

Also, lazy.

Grammar

I did a bit of grammar with them the first year or so, then tapered off. I think grammar is very interesting and think that sentence diagramming is a powerful tool, but at some point, everyone understood what adverbs were and I decided they were better served by img_20160812_102739.jpgreading more literature rather than parsing grammar – we were also doing more Latin, and doing grammar in that context. I didn’t use one single curriculum for this, but various workbooks. Sometimes I just pulled things of the Internet, but I did make use of these:

We started off with Seton’s English for Young Catholics – grades 2 and 6. I thought they were pretty good. We did those in Europe.

Then we went to the Critical Thinking Company’s Language Mechanic and Editor-in-Chief. Both were fine. I did a lot of skipping around, because some exercises were just too simple.

The Grammar Minutes workbooks are good review.

I would not recommend the English grammar materials put out by Singapore Math.

Now, we never used Singapore Math. Yes, it’s the gold standard that all the Intense Homeschoolers use, but I was told early on that it was too challenging and too different to plunge into midstream and, in short..stay away from the Singapore Math unless you are a img_20160812_102622.jpgTrained Professional!

Okay, that’s fine. I wasn’t really tempted anyway. It looked complicated, with all those bars and such. But then I saw that they had grammar materials, and I thought…well, they must be pretty good! So ordered a few of the books. Received them, looked them over..and filed them away to sell or give away.

I don’t have them anymore, and it’s been three years since I looked at them, so I can’t recall the specifics, but the problem was essentially that the materials were written to teach aspects of the language to non-nativeEnglish speakers. The issues highlighted were not those that a native speaker would be dealing with. I’m sorry I can’t piece the specifics together, but really, if you go to a ESL website and look at the exercises, you’ll probably see what I mean.

Upshot? I think we “did grammar” for a year and half, then I stopped and focused on just writing.

Math

Speaking of math…

As I mentioned in a previous post, we began with what their old school used: Pearson’s EnVision Math. There is a lot of hate for this program on the Internet, even from teachers, but I confess that I, a non-math person, did not hate it. It was deeply flawed, but I actually could see the rationale behind it.

Yes, the program sometimes breaks down problems in what seem to be strange, counter-intuitive ways. But what was interesting to me about it was the presentation of different problem-solving strategies for a single problem or area of study. Given that there are, img_20160812_102633.jpgindeed, different ways to look at mathematics problems, and different ways that make sense to different people, I saw this as helpful.

But where the program collapsed, I felt was in expecting the student to demonstrate mastery of all of the techniques and strategies. That seemed to me to contradict the first premise: that different approaches are all valid and more helpful to some than others.

By the time we had finished those books, I had discovered The Art of Problem Solving programs, and I was all in. I had Joseph (6th-7th) grade do the Pre-Algebra program which was very challenging, but excellent. Michael was a bit young for Beast Academy at first, so we transitioned by using Math Mammoth – which is good, and the Life of Fred which is certainly popular among homeschoolers, quirky and interesting reading for a child, but not a comprehensive math program by any means. It’s good because it gives a narrative understanding of mathematics, but it is really not sufficient.

Wait, you’re saying. You’re a humanities person. What are you doing, talking and teaching math?

Well, I managed, and believe it or not, I was so convincing in the charade that last year, my son would come to me with questions about his high school honors Geometry class expecting me to have the answers! Ha!

But do you know what? I could help him, most of the time. I’ve never considered myself math-y at all, and I never took anything higher than what we called “Advanced Math” back in the day, but I suppose was some sort of basic pre-Calculus and Trig, but I don’t find math impenetrable. And the Art of Problem Solving stuff is so good, you really don’t img_20160812_102644.jpgneed “help” in understanding it, and it’s very well-presented that even I found it interesting. The program digs so deeply, yet effortlessly into the foundations of math, what had been taught to me in a way that seemed just random, actually made sense.

Oh, and I have a theory about education that pertains here.

People become educators for various reasons, but specialists get involved because they love their specialty. Which is great!

The problem, however, can be, that if you are a specialist, and if you are really good at something, if you have a gift for understanding or processing a certain subject…you might not be the best person to teach others, others who don’t look at the subject with a flash of intuitive understanding, but have to slog through the fog of confusion to reach the point that you just “get.”

So no, I’m not a mathematician. But I have had to think through the processes in a way – not only when I was in school, but in helping my older kids – that makes me, at the very least, not useless in accompanying my sons on their Math Journey. As we say.

So..yes to Art of Problem Solving. Even if your kids are in school…consider looking at img_20160812_102902.jpgBeast Academy for younger kids as a supplement and the high school classes and other resources on the website for kids who like math and are not being challenged in school. I consider it one of the best, most valuable discoveries of our homeschooling.

Oh, and since the younger one was learning his multiplication tables during part of our time together, I’ll mention that the best drilling app I found was this one: Quick Math.

Latin:

I started them both with …Getting Started with Latin – one in 6th and then the younger one in 5th grade. It’s a super casual, easy introduction. You are probably not going to remember what you learn in this way for the rest of your life or maybe even longer than a year, but as I said, it’s painless and somewhat entertaining. If an authorial sense of humor can shine through in workbook translation exercises, it does here.

We then moved to Visual Latin with the older one, and while the videos were entertaining at first, we both found the course wearisome after about ten lessons. The instructor’s schtick gets old and there was just something about the mode of watching videos and doing printed off worksheets that made retention a challenge. I don’t recommend it, but if you are determined to use it, I can sell you the DVD’s of the first course for cheap!

When it came time for the younger one to hit Latin more seriously, I moved to Latin for Children I had briefly reviewed a friends’ copy and it looked good. I was generally pleased with it, and the lessons stuck. The only thing I would say is to not bother with the activities book. It almost seemed as if some of the puzzles had been computer-generated rather than pulled together by hand, and they were in general either too simple or needlessly tedious.

Okay, that’s it. There’s more, but I’m getting tired of writing about this. I may pick up a few more areas on Monday, but if I don’t, check out the Homeschool Daily Reports. Most of the rest of it – the history, science and literature – involved non-textbook books and activities, anyway.

Are you a homeschooler? How many quarter-filled out activity books do you own?!

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I’m going to write today about What We Did In The Homeschool, but it’s ironic I’m doing it the morning of M’s first day in a brick-n-mortar school in four years.

I’m a little melancholy, but also hopeful. Meet the teacher day was a success, and my intuitions were confirmed. It was absolutely right that we homeschooled for that “elementary” part of life and quite right – I think – that he’s going back for middle school in this school. The teachers all seem to be working at a level that’s challenging and interesting, but imbued with caritas, as their motto says they should be. Religion will be Old Testament and history is Ancient History, and the material will be integrated in creative ways by a great teacher. Science is in a new, up-to-date lab, taught by a Ph.D (who incidentally taught my daughter in a public school International Baccalaureate program several years ago). Spanish is taught by an experience native speaker. We had good experiences with many of these teachers two years ago with my older son, so that’s no surprise, but I was still concerned that this one’s extraordinarily deep and frankly, unusual for his age – imagination, level of interest in and openness to learning might be constrained in a school environment. I’m not thrilled with presenting “1.5-2 hours of homework a night” as a feature, either,  but I’m hoping that it won’t be the case for M, and if it is…we’ll recalibrate. Life is too short for an 11-year old to spend 7 hours a day at school and then have two hours of homework. But as I tell them both frequently – if it doesn’t work for you, we’ll do something else.

This morning I said to the older one, “Do you have any advice for your brother?”

He shrugged. “You’re going to be hungry and you’re going to be tired.”

#Truthteller

#Tradeoffs

All right, so you’re going to homeschool. What next?

I hear Europe is nice. Let’s go there.

Yes, that’s what we did. Spent the fall of 2012 in Europe.

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Here.

I’m not going to relive that experience and go over it in detail, but I’ll just focus on what that absolutely crazy decision was about in the context of the decision to homeschool.

In short, it really was a way to force my own hand.

If I made us leave the country, there was no way I could, come August 1, change my mind and race back to school, registration forms in hand, begging for them to open the doors.

Yes, I was in a privileged position. But it was a privileged position that came out the fact that my father had died the previous year and I was an only child. Frankly, I would trade my father being not dead at 77 from the effects of 60 years of heavy smoking for that fall in Europe, but it was what it was, and as I contemplated what he would want me to do with part of what he had left behind, I was sure he would be just fine with it. This was something he could give these kids through me and this moment, so it happened.

So we went.

Oh, and I should mention that this time in Europe was also a trial run. I was seriously toying with the idea of moving to Europe for a time. Didn’t know where, but it struck me as another solution to the American-education-is-mostly-terrible dilemma. Before we went, I spent time studying the possibility of life in various mid-sized cities like Turin, for example – looking at homeschool rules, the experiences of American kids going to school in European schools and so on.

Well, that almost-four months cured me of that notion. Not in any dramatic fashion, and not in negative terms, but I simply came to understand that as much as we all like visiting European countries, my kids are American kids, they like living in America, and I like raising them in America. With all the stress of being a little family whose husband and father had died, I saw very clearly that taking us to Europe to live would just be…stupid.

So yes, we were in Europe, doing the Roamschool thing, and here’s what we did:

First, I said from the beginning of this that they would be perfectly free to return to school in January. It was going to be completely up to them. And I wasn’t joking, and I wasn’t playing psychological games. I meant it, they knew it, and the school knew it.

With that in mind, we did some formal “schooling” in Europe, mostly with the curricula that their school used in the basics, so that in case they did return, they would be on track with their classes. That meant the second-grader did his class’s spelling words and math program. The sixth grader did the same, plus the vocabulary book. I have photos of them sitting at tables in a gite in the Pyrenees with their books open, pencils going. I am insufferable and awful. But you know…I meant well. And really, I had no expectations that they would want to keep homeschooling come January – I thought they would be thoroughly sick of me and my constant, insufferable teachable moments, and if so, they wouldn’t want to “be behind.”

Journaling and doing Envision Math in Appy, Montignac and Lausanne. Crazy. Not the journaling part, but…

The rest of the education was absolutely, er,  teachable moment from one day to the next – but I did prepare and I did teach. I even sort of designed the trip to hit the high points in chronological order. We started in the Montignac area where there are a lot of prehistoric sites. Then moved to Provence (with Lourdes in between) where we took in Roman Gaul. Then Paris for a month..well, Paris. Then to Italy. Well, okay, it was all over the place. But it was all very intentional and how can you not learn tons in that context?

And today, I look back, and I think…I did what? I planned four months in Europe with these two and we did it, and every day we did this thing and saw everything…and we lived?

It wasn’t that long ago, but I swear..I can’t imagine undertaking that kind of trip today. It was mostly glorious and amazing and I prayed for my dad – and everyone else – at every shrine.

 

EPSON MFP image

“I have to tell you it has been fun.” Haha.

 

 

As the end approached, the question started coming up.

Well? Do you want to go back to school?

Most of the time while we were over there, the answer was either that they didn’t know or “probably.”

But then we actually got back home, we went to the Homewood Christmas Parade they saw their friends, saw that they would be able to be thick into basketball and scouts with these friends and didn’t need school to see them, then considered the reality of waking up early every morning, putting on uniforms and sitting in classrooms, compared it, not to Europe, but to what I suggested we would be doing – work, sure, but also science center classes, zoo classes, “school” done, if everyone cooperated, by noon every day at the latest….

We’ll stay home. Homeschooling will be fine.

And it was.

Now, I’m not going to go into great detail on our days. If you want to see how crazy that was, you can click on these links, which should take you to most of the posts I wrote on homeschooling over the past few years.

Homeschool Daily Report

Learning Notes.

What I am going to talk about will also be a bit limited because I don’t want to go into too much detail about my kids. There was nothing bad or problematic, but I just don’t think it’s my right to write about the particulars of their personalities in relation to education. That’s their business. But what I’ll try to cover is what we did and how it worked without crossing that line of privacy.

First, what did I envision?

To be honest, I really did envision being far more Unschoolish than we ended up being and I do harbor regrets that I never could pull it off. I had hoped that they really would take charge of their own learning and I would just facilitate, and it would be a glorious, busy little hive of self-directed learning, projects and entrepreneurship, but it didn’t work out that way for reasons having to do with them, and having to do with me.

It’s hard to explain, but I think part of it was that the compliance that school demands had…worked. They were perfectly cooperative with authority to the extent that they – especially the older one who had been in school longer – were in the mode of “Learning is about doing what a teacher tells me to do.” I knew this before we went, and indeed, it was something about him that I had discerned and hoped homeschooling would break. But perhaps it is just his personality. As the years went on, he really just preferred to be taught and get it over with for the day so he could go on with his life – and I never could work the “go on with his life” into some sort of educational path. Eh, it was fine.

And secondly, well, there’s…me. I’m not a control freak,  but you know, there were some things I really thought they should do. Yes, we’ll unschool. We’ll be roamschooling unschoolers!

But you know, you know…you have to know how to write properly. Oh, and you’re not going to get out of homeschooling without some Latin. And this math program is fantastic. Oh, and here are some poems to memorize. Look, Shakespeare!

Yeah, I know some unschoolers, and I admire them. I wish I could claim the mantle, but I just can’t.

I guess I should also mention my own personality and how it worked into the homeschooling paradigm. This might be useful to readers, since this is something you have to consider as you get into this. I’m not a robot. I’m a person with certain characteristics and a particular personality. Forget the kids. How am I going to fit into homeschooling?

I mentioned before that I’m an introvert and that the surge of relief I feel when I’m finally alone is probably felt three houses away. I usually explain it by telling a story:

For a time, a few years ago, one of my older sons was living with us, right after he returned from some time teaching English in Rome and while he was going to graduate school. At the time, the younger ones were in school. The day would dawn. They’d go to school. I’d come back, and my older son would be in his room with the door closed. I’d sit at the my desk, ready to work, but finding it difficult. I’d fidget, find distractions and generally feel not quite settled. A couple of hours later, my up-to-then invisible and silent son would come out of his room. “I’m going to class now, Mom,” he’d say, and he’d leave.

Finally, I’d think. Now I can concentrate.

Pretty crazy, huh? Well, that’s an introvert for you.

So yes, I was going to have to be aware of that – as if I couldn’t be – and take care of myself so that I would, at some point, just lose it because no one ever goes away.

And then there’s the personality thing. I don’t set a whole lot of store by personality inventories, except when I do. Like any of you who have worked in group settings, particularly during the 80’s and 90’s, I had to take various personality tests – Enneagram, Myers-Briggs, etc. They are mostly fantasy, but you know…I actually have always found the Myers-Briggs reasonably predictive of my own personality. I always tested as an INFP, and that introvert/intuitive/perceiver is right on. I like to research my tail off, but I don’t like to plan, and my actions within situations are very reactive – in a good way, I think. I’m ready to go in any direction, and I go in what I perceive the needs of the moment call for instead of imposing my will on the situation.

This means that as a homeschooling parent, there was no way we were going to do a boxed curriculum. It meant that as much as possible, I was going to follow their lead and facilitate – much easier, as I have indicated, with one of then than with the other.

And honestly, what it meant was that I spent a lot of time researching resources of all kinds, often late into the night, seeking out interesting nature and history videos, copywork materials, online math, grammar and language games, places for us to go and information about whatever was the topic of the moment.

My life would have been “easier” if I’d done a boxed curriculum or just depended on textbooks, but that is not why I was homeschooling. At all. And of course, I love researching. I love doing travel research, I love digging up recipes…I’m a library rat, and the Internet is the Biggest Library of All.

At one point, there was an attempt to bring a hybrid Catholic school into the area: kids would be in a school maybe two days a week, I think, then finish up work at home. I love the idea of a hybrid school – it really is my ideal – but every time I would think, “Maybe…” I would look at the curriculum again, and think, What they would be doing that I like…we are already doing at home. And I don’t like some of it. And I would be paying a good chunk of money for it. And we would be constrained in our travel and their other fun classes that they like to do.

So I never signed up for it, and as it turned out, not enough people did in the area, so it didn’t happen.

Homeschoolers are hard to plan for, I tell you. They are an independent lot!

And so that’s how it went for two years for both of them, and then for the younger one alone when the older one went, first to 8th grade in school, and then high school. My goal was to get what I considered basics in every day: a bit of writing practice, math and Latin. Everything else was ad hoc and geared to the moment. If their science center class was on molecules one week, we’d talk about that a lot and do more experiments. If we were going to be seeing a Shakespeare play in a few weeks, we’d be reading that. If it was Lent, we’d be paying attention to that. They took lots of classes in the community, and we traveled in the area quite a bit. “School” took no more than three hours a day.

img_20160810_092010.jpg

 

Fancy. 

For you see, this is something I had learned from classroom teaching: You can’t teach everything, so just try to teach what you can, and do it well. For example, I taught Church History to high schoolers, and as I would explain it, holding my arms out as far as they could go, “There’s this much history.” Then I would hold my fingers very close together. “And we have time to study this much.”

In other words, I had to constantly tell myself, THEY ARE TWELVE AND NINE YEARS OLD. THEY WILL READ MORE SHAKESPEARE. THEY WILL ENCOUNTER CHEMISTRY AGAIN. THEY MIGHT EVEN TAKE LATIN AGAIN. CALM DOWN.

So what did I want for them?

To develop a lifestyle of looking at the world with open eyes and open minds, learning from every moment, and learning how to understand that world and communicate what they see. I wanted them to see how fluid life is and how our understanding of the world changes through time, and to understand this, as much as possible via the world itself without the mediation of textbook companies and state curricula guidelines and their narrow, shallow, secular viewpoints.  I wanted them to see that the world is beautiful, fascinating, but broken, and to be open to the intuitions within them that are prompting them to contribute to that beauty and heal the brokenness, whether that be as an artist, an engineer, a researcher, a physician, a zookeeper..or who knows what else God is calling them to.

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I took this our first full day in Europe in 2012, and it remains my favorite, expressing everything I hoped for them from that roamschool adventure.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about my favorite resources, and Friday, I’ll wrap up with a big “What I Learned” post, so…#rantingahead

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…homeschooling?

Of course not.

That was my reaction after reading this lengthy, and very interesting New Yorker article about a small but massively funded startup called AltSchool hoping to “disrupt” education, in the way of  startups everywhere. Let’s take a look.

It’s called AltSchool and the focus is personalized learning (although there is a reference to students reaching benchmarks in things like math, so I’m not sure how that works). The classrooms are homelike, casual environments, where teachers function more as facilitators, helping students find resources in the areas of interest and asking leading questions in those teachable moments.

Sounds familiar.

Except for the screens. And the data collection. And the video cameras that record everything.

The décor evokes an IKEA showroom: low-slung couches, beanbags, clusters of tables, and wooden chairs in progressively smaller sizes, like those belonging to Goldilocks’s three bears. There is no principal’s office and no principal. Like the five other AltSchools that have opened in the past three years—the rest are in the Bay Area—the school is run by teachers, one of whom serves as the head of the school. There is no school secretary: many administrative matters are handled at AltSchool’s headquarters, in the SOMA district of San Francisco. There aren’t even many children. Every AltSchool is a “micro-school.” In Brooklyn Heights, there are thirty-five students, ranging from pre-kindergarten to third grade. Only a few dozen more children will be added as the school matures. AltSchool’s ambition, however, is huge. Five more schools are scheduled to open by the end of 2017, in San Francisco, Manhattan, and Chicago, and the goal is to expand into other parts of the country, offering a highly tailored education that uses technology to target each student’s “needs and passions.” Tuition is about thirty thousand dollars a year.

Another teacher and a student were looking at a tablet computer that displayed an image of a pink jellyfish. The girl had been drawing her own jellyfish with a violet crayon. “Let’s see if we can learn a name of a new jellyfish,” the teacher said. “Which one do you want to learn more about?” She touched the screen, and another jellyfish appeared—a feathery white one. “This is a . . .hippopodius?” the teacher read, stumbling over the name. “I wonder if this one glows in the dark.” The girl said, “Do you have another pink one?”

Students at AltSchool are issued a tablet in pre-K and switch to a laptop in later years. (For now, AltSchool ends at the equivalent of eighth grade.) When I visited a mixed classroom for second and third graders, most of the children were sunk into their laptops. All were engaged in bespoke activities that had been assigned to them through a “playlist”—software that displays a series of digital “cards” containing instructions for a task to be completed. Sometimes it was an online task. Two children were doing keyboarding drills on a typing Web site. Their results would be uploaded for a teacher’s assessment and added to the student’s online Learning Progression—software developed by AltSchool which captures, in minute detail, a student’s progress.

 

 

“What is a castle?—that was your starting question today,” the teacher said. After the girl wrote a response, on paper, the teacher snapped a photograph of the page, in order to upload it to the girl’s playlist card.

She might also send it to a parent’s phone, using AltSchool Stream, an app that enables instant communication between home and school. Meanwhile, above the students’ heads, a network of white audio recorders hung from the ceiling, and fish-eye lenses were embedded in the walls. The goal of this surveillance system, AltVideo, is to capture every word, action, and interaction, for potential analysis.

And here’s where I went….wait. You want a bespoke educational experience that you can monitor to the second? Why not just save 30K and stay home and do it yourself? Well, I guess you’d have to forfeit that 400K salary, so never mind. 

The video surveillance creeps me out.  Later in the article, it says the video is not saved, but Lord. Would you want to send your kid to a school where every move of theirs is tracked and monitored and recorded? This is so weird. These tech people really are closet fascists.

The more Ventilla thought about education, the more he thought that he could bring about change—and not just for his own children. Instead of starting a “one-off school,” he would create an educational “ecosystem” that was unusually responsive to the interests of children, feeding them assignments tied to subjects they cared about.

Hahaha.  Welcome to my educational ecosystem unusually responsive to the interests of children:

"amy welborn"

I’ll take your 30k!

Ventilla also wanted students to focus on developing skills that would be useful in the workplace of the future, rather than forcing them to acquire knowledge deemed important by historical precedent. “Kids should be spending less time practicing calculating by hand today than fifty years ago, because today everyone walks around with a calculator,” Ventilla told me. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to do math—I shouldn’t have to whip out my phone to figure out if someone gave me the correct change. But you should shift the emphasis to what is relatively easier, or what is relatively more important.” Ventilla loves languages—his parents are Hungarian, and he grew up bilingual before studying French and Latin in school. He later learned some Persian, so that he could understand what a girlfriend’s family was saying about him at the dinner table. But he’s not certain that his daughter should devote similar energy to language acquisition. “If the reason you are having your child learn a foreign language is so that they can communicate with someone in a different language twenty years from now—well, the relative value of that is changed, surely, by the fact that everyone is going to be walking around with live-translation apps,” he said.

This is legitimate and echoes conversations happening in education all over the place. What his answer misses, though, is that there are deeper reasons for studying math and language beyond skill acquisition. Both, for example, involve coming to an understanding of structure, and even as a non-math person, I find the study of math as a mean of encountering logic and structure, even at the elementary level, to be very useful.

And interesting. 

None of these backers want merely to own part of a chain of boutique micro-schools. Rather, they hope that AltSchool will help “reinvent” American education: first, by innovating in its micro-schools; next, by providing software to educators who want to start up their own schools; and, finally, by offering its software for use in public schools across the nation, a goal that the company hopes to achieve in three to five years.

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are convinced that the flexibility and innovation of the tech sphere can be productively and profitably applied to the education sector, which is perceived as sclerotic.

I don’t disagree at all.  But software isn’t going to help schools attain flexibility. Only the freedom to be flexible will do that. That’s not a technical issue, but a political one.

Seyfert pulled up the Learning Progression spreadsheet of one of her students, a seventh grader. Grades from kindergarten to eighth grade were denoted on the X axis, and various subject areas on the Y axis. Areas of completed study—sixth-grade math, for example—were indicated by cells filled in with green. Areas the student was still working on—seventh-grade science, for instance—were colored orange. In English, he was working well ahead of his expected grade level. Seyfert could click on each subject area to get more precise information about his progress. The effect was rather like opening an online report from a credit-card company that can show expenditures by category—Shopping, Travel—as well as specific purchases. She could see how many articles the student had read on Newsela, a site that provides Associated Press articles edited for different reading levels. She could click to see the student’s scores on the quizzes that accompanied each article, and then go into the article itself to read his annotations and marginal notes.

Here and there a solitary orange cell indicated an area that the student had not yet mastered. A student might have been sick the week that his fifth-grade class consolidated its knowledge of fractions and might not quite have grasped the principle. “If I notice he is really scoring low on a standard, I can go and look at the cards that assess that standard and see where the breakdown is happening,” Seyfert explained.

At the same time, educators at AltSchool are discussing whether children really need to attain certain skills at particular stages of their educational development, as the Common Core implies. Seyfert thinks that it might be more useful to think of learning not as linear but as scrambled, like a torrent file on a computer: “You can imagine all the things you need to learn, and you could learn it all out of order so long as you can zip it up at the end, and you are good to go.”

I resonate with that last paragraph, but the first two, not so much. Every time I go to a parent night at a school – even our not-alt-schools – I feel so sorry for teachers. There is just a ridiculous level of complexity to that 50 minute class session now. You must account for all the different learning styles. You must incorporate all kinds of technology and digital media into your presentation and the students’ work. You might want to flip your classroom. You must have an inquiry-based classroom. You’ve got to prep the kids for the testing. All this in addition to the usual and pervasive cultural and social resistance to learning and insane parental expectations.  I honestly don’t think I could do it.

And track every student move during the day?

So this struck me as true:

Daniel Willingham, an education scholar at the University of Virginia, told me that adopting technology in schools can be maddeningly inefficient. “The most common thing I hear is that when you adopt technology you have to write twice the lesson plans,” he told me. “You have the one you use with the technology, and you have the backup one you use when the technology doesn’t work that day.” Willingham also notes that the most crucial thing about educational software isn’t the code that assesses student performance; it’s the worthiness of the readings and the clarity of the math questions being presented onscreen. “People are very focussed on the algorithm,” he said. “But equally important is the quality of the materials.”

The gap between AltSchool’s ambitions for technology and the reality of the classroom was painfully obvious the morning that I spent in the Brooklyn school. One kindergartner grew increasingly frustrated with his tablet as he tried to take a photograph of interlocking cubes that he had snapped into a strip of ten. (He was supposed to upload the image to his playlist.) He shook the unresponsive tablet, then stabbed repeatedly at the screen, like an exhausted passenger in a cab after an overnight flight, unable to quell the Taxi TV.

Even when AltSchool’s methods worked as intended, there were sometimes questionable results. The two girls whom I watched searching for seals on Google Images found plenty of suitable photographs. But the same search term called up a news photo of the corpse of a porpoise, its blood blossoming in the water after being rent almost in half by a seal attack. It also called up an image in which the head of Seal, the singer, had been Photoshopped onto a sea lion’s body—an object of much fascination to the students. To the extent that this exercise was preparing them for the workplace of the future, it was also dispiritingly familiar from the workplace of the present, where the rabbit holes of the Internet offer perpetual temptation.

(I’m a long time skeptic of computers and now tablets in classrooms. I’m not impressed when a school brags about how hep they are to the new technology. It’s useful and important for reference and research, but other than that it’s a distraction, the kids play games, and even educational computer games are of very limited value.)

Anyway, you might want to pop over and read the whole thing. My final thoughts:

I was interested in this article because the AltSchool people disdain educational standards (as I do), but they replace the repressiveness of that particular idol with some sort of data-driven goal that is, if you can imagine, even worse.

Track every single blink and computer click, upload it, study it, share it with parents…why?

It seem as if it’s nothing more than a “educational” ecosystem modeled after tech companies.

Which makes sense, if you think about it, for what does most institutional education turn on? Creating new versions of the institution’s vested interest: citizens, consumers, parish loyalists, alumni whose success guarantees big future donations.

So it is not surprising that Silicon Valley types would be dissatisfied with John Dewey’s desired student product and instead strive to form theirs in their own image.

The result: Too many screens, not enough quiet with books and paper and colored pencils and music and distraction-free conversation.

The purpose of education in my mind, is to encourage a person to look at the world, begin to try to understand the world, and point them in the direction of contributing good to the world. Observe, think, create, narrate, problem solve.

There is some of this here, but in the end it fails. Too damn many screens and not enough wisdom-seeking.

Here’s an unpopular opinion, somewhat related.

We went through a very brief Minecraft phase here.  It was brief because they could never quite figure out how to get the most out of the Minecraft experience – they couldn’t figure out mods, my computer doesn’t have enough memory (I think that was a problem)  and I guess to really get into it, you need to play on a server? Or something? And, as I said, it was beyond us and their screen time is so limited, they preferred to use it for other things.

But I still see lots of Minecraft-related material and boosterism, saying how it’s great for teaching math and geometry and creativity, as they make their worlds and so on. Maybe it is! But…

Last night before he went to sleep, my 11-year old asked me to come into his room. There, he spent about twenty minutes showing me pictures he’d been drawing in a notebook, part of an elaborate story and world he is creating. Last night,  I learned all about this planet’s place in its solar system, its religion, its mining system and the giant Lime Snakes that live underground and cause earthquakes when they fight.

I think he’s working on it again right now, sketching it out in a composition book from the dollar store and what he can’t get down on paper, storing data  in a memory bank that is his very own, that not a soul – not even me – can ever, ever mine.

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