Friday, January 17, 2014

Teaching My Own: Transitions

^ My adorable students posing at Drumheller Fountain, on campus at the University of Washington

Here's the thing about parenting: just when you think you've finally got things figured out, and have a good handle on how to meet your kids' needs, they go and change on you. Suddenly, all the tried-and-true strategies are obsolete and you're back at Square One, scratching your head and wondering what happens next.

Even more so for the homeschooling parent. After lots of trial and error, I had finally hit upon a winning combination of activities that enriched my daughters' lives and encouraged them to follow their own learning instincts For several years, we were on a roll.

Then, in the blink of an eye (or so it seemed,) we hit middle school. In a flash, our carefree just-love-the-learning years seemed inadequate - at least for my older girls - and the prospect of preparing for college loomed large before my eyes.

In short, it was time to change my game plan. 

The challenge was steep. I wanted my kids to get used to more structured, "traditional" educational experiences, but I still wanted them to get excited about what they were learning, and bring all of their enthusiasm to bear on more complex topics. 

How to get my adolescents on board with disciplined classroom routines that they could enjoy and actually learn from? I eventually found my answer:


Unlocking this secret was like splitting the atom. Once I figured out how to use my daughters' blossoming social awareness to my own ends, our high school homeschooling adventures were a joy - even more fun that those blessedly sweet and simple elementary years.

^ Burgers and shakes at Dick's. On 45th, course. The original location.

Here are some of the basic principles that helped me make the transition from the sweet and simple early years of self-directed learning to a burn-out free high school experience. 

Learning is more fun with friends.
Little ones are happy to hang with their mommies and siblings, but once adolescence kicks in, kids need to be with friends. This is not a bad thing - tweens and teens who are surrounded by their peers want to look good, and that keeps everyone on their best behavior. So when my first-born was twelve, I intentionally shifted from a family focus to finding a like-minded homeschool peer group. 

Find a place to fit in. 
In order to find a good group of peers, my daughters and I needed to swim in a bigger pond. During the early years, we were content to run with a just a few other homeschooling families, because we also spent time with traditionally-schooled friends from Girl Scouts, our church, and our neighborhood. But now that I was looking to do more learning in peer groups, I realized it was time to join a larger homeschooling network. 

For us, the best choice was a nearby public school program that essentially functioned as a community college for over 500 homeschooled students. Within that huge community, we soon settled into a group of about a dozen families who were super compatible with us, and the delightful social energies of those kids and mommies made this school-for-homeschoolers the perfect place for us to learn and grow. 

^ David saw this cool mural across the street from Dick's and posed for a photo.

Create learning experiences to fit specific needs.
Our program offered a wide variety of courses for students; everything from traditional math classes to eight different language courses to hip-hop dance to an off-site hands-on opportunity to build wooden boats. Some teachers were laid-back and alternative-ish; others were very much by-the-book. In short, our program offered a little something for everyone. 

But after a few months of observation, I began to imagine ways to take bits and pieces of those offerings and blend them together to create some best-of-all-worlds opportunities for my kids and their friends. Our program encouraged moms to take up the educational mantle in this way, and I began to network with the other mommies in our social group, creating and delivering custom-made classes to our own students.

It was in this way that I met my homeschooling soul sister, Heidi. Our kids became fast friends; she and I saw eye to eye on what an effective learning experience should be. Our teaching partnership was soon born and lasted for many exciting and rewarding years. 

^ An hour browsing at the Archie McPhee shop of curiosities turns up any number of shocking surprises.

Build a group of students that work well together and keep them together.
Heidi and I both believed that a well-suited group of classmates would generate that highly desirable social safety that allows kids to let down their guards so they can focus and learn. 

We had strong opinions about class size. Eight students is ideal, ten is manageable. Smaller is okay, though potentially a bit boring; any more than ten usually causes a break in the social structure and splinters the class into multiple groups. Not what we were going for.

For most subjects, we preferred a balance between boys and girls, though we occasionally experimented with all-girl classes to great success. We also worked hard to ensure that each student would have at least one safety-friend; a buddy to help them feel connected to the entire group. 

Age, we learned, did not matter so much. Homeschooled kids tend to feel comfortable in different-age friendships, so we let social energies dictate the proper cut-off points for our peer groups. 

Once we established a strong peer group for our classes, we did our best to hold them together for different subjects and successive years. Starting a new class with a group of kids who already had an established classroom dynamic made our jobs much easier, so we did our best to keep the little darlings together for the long haul.

^ Exploring at the Fremont Troll always leads in one direction...up!

Keep the mamas at bay. 
One of the few justifiable criticisms of homeschooling is that it can sometimes fuel an overly intense bond between mother and student. Bluntly put, some homeschooled kids feel smothered by maternal attention. Heidi and I took that issue seriously, and made several adjustments to minimize the potentially negative effect. 

First, we backed way off on our own kids. While we were serving as their teachers, we made efforts to act like we were not their mommies, and tried to give them the same sense of  freedom and individuality that the other students enjoyed.

Second, we kept the other mothers at a safe distance. Some were more than happy to take a time out while we taught their kids, but others expressed an interest in stepping into our classrooms and helping. Heidi and I weighed those offers with sensitivity and did our best to invite mother helpers into specific roles that we considered appropriate. 

^ The view from the top.

Hold the students accountable.
Another oft-deserved criticism of homeschooling is that some students are not taught age-appropriate accountability. Late assignments, incomplete work, unsatisfactory progress - some homeschooling mothers just don't have the tools, patience or perseverance to ensure that their older students get things done right. 

(To be fair, traditional teachers don't always produce perfect students either, but let me not digress into the minefield of comparison.)

On this subject, Heidi and I were sticklers. We designed our classes with clear assignments, due dates and deadlines. We also developed ways to draw positive attention to students who got their work done, and to shine a gentle spotlight on those who slacked off. 

^ And tiny teachers down below. That's me in white and Heidi in the green.

Have fun!
The recent brain research verifies what Heidi and I knew in our guts to be true...learning works better if students enjoy what they're doing. Boredom shuts down the brain and turns off the learning process. My partner and I did our best to make our classes appealing and interesting, because we knew that when our students felt safe, happy and engaged, they would more effectively learn. 

* * * * *

With these principles in my back pocket, and my new teaching partner by my side, I went on to develop a series of high-expectation, intellectually challenging classes that pushed my students - including my daughters - into the world of academic rigor and prepared them for life beyond high school.

The photos in this post came from the culminating adventures of a class we taught on United States Landmarks. After a year spent discussing the historical, geographic and cultural implications of one hundred of our nation's most iconic sites and scenes, we took our students on a whirlwind tour of Seattle's top landmarks. It was one of the finest afternoons of my homeschooling career and a sweet, sweet memory today.


  1. ...beautifully written. Thank you, once again, for putting words to those wild and wonderful teaching years! -h

    1. Thank's my pleasure to tell our story...hope the happy memories will last a lifetime.


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