Thursday, November 02, 2006

History Buffs

Much unlike either of their parents, my daughters are history buffs. Caitlín especially likes the Oregon Trail, Colonial and Medieval periods. Laurel's favorites are the Colonial, Revolutionary, and Civil War eras, but she also likes the medieval period. Browsing some old e-mails tonight, I found this one of interest:

Out of curiosity, a few weeks ago I gave Caitlín an oral "test" on the history SOLs for 6th grade (which are rather lofty, and highly unlikely to be achieved in a public school setting). She already knew everything included--except for the terms "speakeasy" and "fascism." When I asked Caitlín if she could explain the influx of immigrants, the reasons they came, the hardships they faced, and their relationship to the rise of industrialism, she floored me! She has a very clear understanding of it all. Her knowledge was across the board, from the end of WWII through the Civil Rights movement. And nobody "taught" her a thing; she learned it because she found the books interesting. Caitlín didn't study history in chronological order, but bounced around, starting with 1847 on the Oregon Trail, then to 1777, forward to 1912 aboard the Titanic, and when the "Royal Diaries" came out, she went all the way back to 57 BCE, to Cleopatra's youth.

We don't do tons of hands-on activities for history. Caitlín sometimes will want to try a recipe or activity found in one of the books, but most of our "real life" history studies focus on the Colonial and Revolutionary periods, as there is a wealth of historical sites in our area. But she is asking for help finding historical sites of other time periods, such as the Victorian or Great Depression.

My daughters' enjoyment of history has far surpassed what I wrote just over 5 years ago--to places I could not have imagined at that time. I will post more about that soon.

Friday, September 15, 2006


My good friend, Linda, recently visited the DC area and wanted to go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I agreed to be her chauffer and tour guide, although I had never been to the Wall, afraid I would break down under the heavy emotional impact. The black granite wall starts out as a sliver, with just a few names. The list grows as the wall becomes higher, and the visitor walks deeper into the "hole." The polished stone reflects visitors' images, so they are juxtaposed with the etched names of the dead, reminding us that these are not just names, they are people, like us.

As we walked along the Wall, with the list of names overwhelmingly tall, I randomly read names, wondering who these people were, unable to imagine. My mind made a connection between this memorial and the Piscataway Indians' autumnal Feast of the Dead ceremonies, where ancestors are remembered, their names said aloud by descendents. Sometimes, they are names that have not been said since the last ceremony, or even in decades. As participants call each ancestral name, they tie a piece of cloth to the cedar tree in the middle of the circle. Speakers will sometimes make a brief statement about their ancestor, about who the person was, or how the descendent feels connected to the person who went before.

Despite the weight of those seemingly endless names etched upon the Wall, I held myself together well, even as we passed several little altars--the photos, medals, flags and other offerings to the dead. Then we came to a particular shrine, a zipper bag with a flag in it and some photos, a child's scribbled drawing, and a note that read something like, "Dear Dad, I graduated from college and wore your wings. I am married now, and have two children. This is my husband, Scott, and our daughters...[forgot their names]. I never met you, but I think about you often. You were only 22, and you did not come back..." That did it. Linda and I read it, looked at each other briefly, but intently, and I turned away as my eyes teared up. It took all I had to keep from breaking down as we walked slowly, silently back out of the hole, watching the list of names wane as we reached the top edge of that black mirror.

From there, Linda and I bypassed the pompous National WW II Memorial on the way to the Korean War Veterans Memorial, where the pale cast-aluminum soldiers were like scattered ghosts frozen mid-stride. The black granite wall there bears the etched images of American soldiers who served, likenesses taken from a multitude of photographs, their wraith-like faces straining the polished surface of the stone as if they were pressing through thin fabric. They seem to be in effort to lift themselves from it, as if they want to come forth to speak. I wondered aloud, considering when the Iraq War Veterans Memorial would be built, and how many dead would be honored there--and where would they put it? DC is running out of room for memorials to those killed in our wars.

The last memorial we visited was the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, my favorite. I like its relative informality, the individual rooms, the human touch, human scale, the varied use of water, and, of course, the quotes about social responsibility. I pointed out one of the best
to Linda, "I have seen war...I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war."

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Tagged and Answering a Few Homeschool Questions

Homeschoolers' Success Stories : 15 Adults and 12 Young People Share the Impact That Homeschooling Has Made on Their Lives, by Linda Dobson, because it offers an exciting and encouraging picture of the possibile paths and futures of today's homeschoolers. These young people have created hand-made lives; they are carving their own niches in the world. Reading their stories reinforces the hope that homeschooling my children will feed their uniqueness and enable them to make their own, custom, satisfying paths in life.

The Internet. It is a dictionary, library, encyclopedia, foreign language course, history resource, bookstore, music store, community portal and grassroots organizing tool all rolled into one.

Books and curricular materials for which my children had not expressed prior interest, as most of them were shunted.

Tickets to "Le Nozze di Figaro" at George Mason University.

Tickets to "Carmen" at George Mason University.

Season tickets for theatre, opera, or symphony.

History- or theatre based mathematics, to make it more interesting for my children.

FUN Books, of course!


Marjorie, Robin, Stephanie, Missy, Susan

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Crucial Elements

I was lucky to have an unconventional youth, during which short periods of my life were defined largely by who I was and what interested me. These were my halcyon days, upon which I still look with pleasure. Some time ago, I made a brief list of the elements that were crucial to these idyllic periods:
  • learning by following my heart and by doing
  • feeling accepted and welcomed
  • engaged in meaningful work
  • peaceful surroundings
  • having my private space
  • a strong sense of self
  • feeling loved
  • participating in enjoyable physical activities
  • enjoying a healthful lifestyle
  • feeling in love with life
  • feeling safe
  • knowing I make a difference

Looking at this list now, I see that my daughters are far luckier than I was; their unconventional youth affords them great sweeping expanses of life defined by who they are and what interests them.

Recently I have concluded that fun and magic are crucial elements in the design of my life today. They are nearly as essential to me as air and water. Without fun and magic, it would not be my life.

My children have repeatedly demonstrated that they are much more perceptive than most people give kids credit for. They pick up on nuances, read between lines, hear between words, scrutinize the examples we set. Scanning our lives for ideas, traits, thoughts, and ways of being that they can welcome or reject, they reflect who we are by being who they are, not our little dittos. I wonder what this revelation, about the essentialness of fun and magic, will signify. How it will affect my children's view of their own lives, and how much of their lives will they look back upon with pleasure?

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Driving Lessons, NOT

My oldest is 16 now, and not interested in learning to drive, although I am sure she knows a lot about it from being exposed to it through conversations and observations. It will be interesting to see how my early reader comes into being a driver. The funny thing is this kid is very emotionally mature and responsible for her age, so she would be one of the better young drivers. In fact, I see her wanting to wait as an indication of her maturity.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Summer Reading Programs

A few years ago my older daughter, Caitlin was "in 6th grade," but reading mostly young adult books, as she had outgrown most in the youth section. Since she was reading "teen" books, she felt she should be able to participate in the teen level summer reading program sponsored by the library. The teen program offers prizes for a much lower number of books than does the level for younger children, because the young adult (YA) books are longer reads. I think they offered a prize for every 5 books, and the "little kid's" program did so for every 10, or maybe 20.

When Caitlin asked if she could participate in the teen reading program, the librarian told her "no," because she was not yet "in high school." Cait decided she would no longer participate in the reading program. "I read because I enjoy it," she told me, "and I don't need any prizes as incentives."

The next time we went to the library, another librarian spoke to us about the summer reading program, expressing disgust at the kids who were obviously signed on only for the prizes. She said it was easy to discern their motive, as they often chose books based on their brevity--such as poetry anthologies or books of jokes. The librarian was dismayed that these kids did not seem to want to read for the pleasure of it, but were only interested in jumping as low as possible through the hoops to get the goodies.

Then the same librarian asked my daughter if she had signed up for the summer reading program, and when Cait explained why she had not--that she thought it unfair that she was reading YA books and had to read so many of those to get a prize in the little kid's program--the librarian told her she should "pick short, easy to read books, like poetry anthologies and joke books." I hardly knew what to say. Cait was thoroughly disgusted and simply walked away. I think I said something like, "Caitlin seems to think that is not a viable option," and also walked away. We have not felt the need to revisit the summer reading program topic since.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Chortling Paramedics

My daughter e-mailed me the most recent culmination of her life without school: a Power Point trailer for the fictitious movie, "Chortling Paramedics." The words on the screen are a warning. "When you're in trouble...don't call for help...because you might not get it...if your town has been taken over by Chortling Paramedics!"

It has been interesting to see the evolution behind the product. Caitlin, now age 16, started her e-zine after watching me produce the VaHomeschoolers biweekly Updates for a couple of years, and the HEM Online Newsletter for the past couple of years. Needing content for her e-zine, "The Talisman," Cait began to write some book and movie reviews. In preparing those, she researched other reviews, to obtain a clear sense of what made a quality review, and adopted those elements into her pieces. Her research also took her to authors' sites, and movie sites, where she could pick up the year of release, exact spelling of stars' names, etc. She has apparently read numerous reviews, and has a great film literacy--well beyond that of her movie-challenged mother.

Many of the movie sites include trailers, which Cait and her younger sister, Laurel, have watched, discovering the elements that production houses use to pique viewers' curiosity. They learned Power Point from their lifelong friends, who came over for an afternoon a couple of weeks ago. Each of my kids has produced multiple Power Point slide shows, and her first fictional movie trailer. Production of Caitlin's trailer included learning how to download clip art, sounds, and animations. She learned how to recolor images, white out aspects she did not like, and took Laurel's advice on using a filled-in text box to mask the icon made by a sound clip. Cait also made the movie rating box from scratch, modeled after those she has seen online and at the theater.

I am unable to see where my children will end up, but I can tell they are on a course that incorporates literature, writing, and creativity. It is exciting, a pleasure, and an honor, to be on this journey with them. I would not have it any other way. Chortling Paramedics...who could have imagined?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Off the Specified Route

A couple of weeks ago, my friend, Kathy, drove me and another friend to a workshop about an hour away. Kathy did not worry much about finding the venue location, as her car has an onboard navigation system. It talks. A soft, pleasant female voice gives commands like, "prepare to turn left ahead."

However, Kathy has mixed feelings about her guide. The contraption does not appreciate it when the driver chooses her own route. "You are off the specified route," the voice will admonish. Then it will direct the driver to, "Make a 'U' turn as soon as possible," in an attempt to correct what it deems an error.

Kathy decided to ignore the onboard computer and take her own route, but the machine could not comprehend this deviation. It responded with repeated warnings about the importance of the specified route, and admonitions to turn back. We all laughed, but I probably laughed the loudest, as I saw a deeper meaning in the computer's messages. I noted that the computer's directions were much like those I had encountered from other experts, human experts. How many times I have been admonished for being "off the specified route!" Heaven forbid I should take the scenic route on a whim, make a side trip out of necessity, or visit a byway to satisfy my curiosity.

If I were to map my education, it would not be a linear "specified route." It would look more like a cobweb, (made by arachnids in the Theridiidae family) with threads weaving left and right, up and down, at every angle, and with points connected to points in a seemingly random fashion.

I like my cobweb of learning, and following a "specified route" does not interest me. My children would say the same, only they have had the whole of their lives to build their webs. It is a marvelous pleasure to watch them take shape.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

A Byproduct of Public School

As I noted before, the idea of a person being a "product of the public school system" is one that makes me shudder. I attended 9 years of public school (plus 1 year of private school, and two years unschooling), but have never considered myself a product of the school sytem. Perhaps, though, I am a byproduct of public school.

A member of my statewide discussion list, VaEclecticHS, noted that in school she became "tired of being the weird one," and she tried "very hard to 'look stupid'" in order to avoid complete alienation, so she could have some friends.

She was not alone. I did the same thing, to some degree. In one high school class, the teacher offered a dollar to whomever won the pop quiz of the day--which consisted of questions regarding any number of subjects. It was sort of like a simple version of Jeopardy. I usually won the buck, but quickly realized that I could not keep winning without being not just unpopular (which I didn't really care about), but becoming a target for aggressive acts. This is an example of "learning outside the curriculum."

Another thought expressed during the same discussion was that, in school, it is "near impossible to be accepted...and do what is right for yourself." In my experience, that seems true. While I was in school, I walked on that edge many times. Fortunately, for the most part, I did what was right for myself, even though it meant withstanding disapproval from teachers, administrators, and fellow students.

I am consistently drawn to people who are authentic. They somehow tend to also be the more colorful, more outspoken, more odd, more peculiar. The wierd ones. I love the weird ones, the people who refuse to pretend they are "stupid" or act like anything else they are not. Thank goodness for homeschooling, as it allows us all to be ourselves, in our own unique, weird ways. I am proud to be one of the Official Weirdos.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Authority Figures

The March issue of the HEM Online Newsletter includes one of my essays, which came about through recent conversations with several of my gal pals. Although the topics and mix of pals varied, a common element wove its way through these conversations. The mulling of that element and those conversations resulted in "A Homeschooler's Changing Perspective on Authority Figures."

Monday, March 06, 2006

Life Without School

My friend started a blog called "Life Without School," which was actually the inspiration for Anecdotal Evidence. My friend's blog offers a lot more than this one does. Unlike myself--whose blog went up with a single wave of enthusiasm and interest, my friend has put a lot of time and thought into creating a meaningful and well-planned site. Life Without School provides a smorgasbord of writers, intended to give visitors "a real-life living breathing panorama of what Life Without School can mean," and she made it "live" just this morning. Hey, look! She started it with my "Crucial Elements" post.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Homeschool Teen Reviews

My eldest daughter, Caitlín, is a writer in her own right. Almost 16 years-old, she is skilled far beyond the level I had attained at that age. This is due to both nature and nurture; she has the brains and the inclination, and has grown up in an environment that provides excellent support for her endeavors.

One of Cait's more recent endeavors has been creating the HomeschoolTeenReviews discussion list. My daughter has been aware of e-mail discussion lists for almost as long as she can remember, and has a good understanding of their potential value. As with my own discussion lists, Caitlín's was born out of the desire to create something that would satisfy her, but it has also served many others. The description of her list states that it is "for homeschooled teens to post their reviews of books and movies, in order to share their favorites and read recommendations from others."

My daughter has learned a lot through creating and managing her list. Caitlín has had practice setting boundaries with people she has never met, risked being "unpopular" for sticking to her boundaries, worked on making her message positive, discovered how to deal with the host if there are problems, and explored ways to make HS-Teen-Reviews a more active list.

In addition, Cait's list has given her an outlet for her prolific reviews. She has over 11 pages of book and movie reviews lined up to post over time. The first time I read one of them, I was incredulous that this girl, who formerly "hated" writing, had
created a thoughtful, well-crafted review. I noted that it was written in a professional format, and asked how she came up with that. "I read other reviews online and decided which elements I would like to include."

Raising this writer did not involve compulsory study of grammar, sentence diagrams, or long lists of spelling words to study or define. My daughter has simply been exposed to plenty of good writing, engaged in a variety of conversations, received assistance in finding answers to her questions, and supported in whatever project she chooses to take on. Caitlín became a writer by living a writer's life.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A Pivotal Point

A thought expressed on my statewide e-mail list, VaEclecticHS, was that, in school, it is "near impossible to be accepted...and do what is right for yourself." In my experience, that seems true. While I was in school, I walked on that edge many times. Fortunately, for the most part, I did what was right for myself, even though it meant withstanding disapproval from teachers, administrators, and fellow students.

I was a goody two-shoes in the elementary years, but in middle school I began to recognize that the sytem had some serious flaws, and I started to take action contrary to it. It was a gender issue that awakened my consciousness: being denied the education I wanted--solely on the basis of my gender--was an offense that fired my anger and resolve.

The incident began at the end of 6th grade, when choosing classes for the following year. I signed up for Wood Shop, after the woman who was staffing the sign-up had answered my question, telling me that girls were indeed allowed to take this class. I turned in my forms and skipped away, my heart light with pleasure at the thought of learning some of those things that, in my family, were relegated to the privileged and powerful world of men and boys. How excited I was, imagining myself using those tools to build useful, durable things in which I could take pride!

Now, picture a 12-year-old girl's face, when she receives her class assignments the morning of her first day of middle school. She unfolds the paper with anticipation, only to discover that, rather than the Wood Shop she longed for, she has been assigned to Home Economics.

Looking back, I see that as a pivotal point in my life. The searing injustice I felt at that moment was not just a reaction to the school system's pushing me aside, but also to a larger sense of being relegated to a second class, within my family--where the boys had a measure of privilege and status that was denied to the girls--and within the larger world. At twelve years old, I well knew the sting of descrimination, and I determined it was time to stand up and fight.

With steady support from my mother, I resisted the school system's attempt to sweepm me under the rug of the Home Ec. class. The authorities tried various methods to keep me in line: force, manipulation, intimidation, lies, and distraction. My mother's guidance was perfect. She acted as council, but empowered me with the responsibility of taking action. To each of the school's attempts, I responded firmly and calmly, until they had run out of excuses and tactics, conceded that they lost, and let me into the class. They lost the battle to keep a girl from learning what she desired to learn, and I won the ability to determine for myself what I would learn--at least for one period of the school day, for one half of the school year.

By the time I had won my case, the quarter was 1/2 over, so I entered Wood Shop at a disadvantage. Still, my interest and enthusiasm garnered me a "B" for the grading period, and I made an "A" for the second quarter. Although I suspect it was partly due to the shop teacher's admonition before I came into his class, my fellow classmates were polite, and seemed to accept my presence. They even indicated respect for what I had done, and for what I created in class.

So, I made my little mark in history, being the first girl to enroll in Wood Shop at that school. Through this experience, I learned something of the importance of being oneself, of speaking up, and of holding out for what one wants. I discovered that, with support and determination, I could stare down The System and change it for the better. It is remarkable what one can learn from life when meeting it head on.

To read my articles,
visit my Web site, Synergy Field.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Interfering With Life

The phrase, "I am a product of the ___ (name of district) public schools," is one that evokes my shudder every time I hear or read it. The statement calls to mind the 12-step programs: "My name is ____ and I am a product of the public schools."

The Free Dictionary defines "product" as "something produced by human or mechanical effort or by a natural process," or "A direct result; a consequence." To state that one is a product of the public school system is to negate all that makes one something other than a factory-formed product. Although I spent about nine of my formative years in public school, I do not consider myself a "product" of the system or of school in general. In my mind, it is largely the time and learning I spent out of school, and even in resistance to school, that made me who I am. Were I to be only what the school produced, I would be a sorry specimen, indeed.

During the last two years of my public education, I often stated--in a joking tone, although I meant it sincerely--that "school interferes with my life." I was able to make this declaration only because I had experienced two years of life without school.
It was unschooling, actually, although it was considered "truancy" in that time and place.

any times in my school "career" (as they seem to call it now), I had little or no interest in the subject at hand or the educational method used. I was completely turned off by rote memorization, history presented as a series of wars, busywork, and the lack of any visible connection between the curriculum and real life. Some of my teachers and classes were great, a few were awful, and most were so-so. Where I had great teachers, I put my energy into learning, and I declined to invest where the material or instructor was boring.

Observing the system, I learned how to work around it. My most effective response was to not show up. In my last two years of high school, I skipped nearly as often as I went to class. I showed up for first period, to be accounted for on the master roll call that went to the main office, then chose which classes I would attend that day, based on factors such as my interest in the subject, what was happening in class, and whether it was a day too beautiful to neglect taking a boat out on the river. I asked classmates for the homework assignments, completed those and turned them in on time, crammed for- and aced the tests, and kept a B average without totally ruining my young life. Amazingly, nobody in the system noticed. The only time I encountered any trouble was when a girl named Sharon finked on me for skipping, apparently because she was jealous that she did not have the guts to come along. I caught a lot of flak from my dad that night, but it was worth it; my afternoon on the river had given me much pleasure.

During my junior and senior years, it was the time out of school that kept me sane. Given my resistance, I would certainly be expelled from today's schools, and, for me, that would be a good thing. Indeed, it would probably have been good back in the '70's, and expulsion might have occurred, had anyone been paying attention.

Monday, February 27, 2006

A Level Playing Field?

The News Leader's editorial board's piece, "A level playing field,"
includes no facts to support its position regarding homeschool legislation. The bill in question does not affect accountability; all homeschooling parents must continue to show annual evidence of adequate progress for each child.

The editorial expresses a complaint about Virginia “groaning under the onerous demands” of NCLB and government bureaucracy, while asserting that homeschoolers should be held to the same standards. In the name of “fair” the authors would justify one abuse with another and believe that the sum of two wrongs equals a right. I have to wonder about the reason for this punitive mindset, and whether the writers would extend this punishing "level" to private schools, as well.

In arguing that homeschoolers should be held to the same standard as public education, the editorial board forgets that homeschooling is not public education; it is private education. Homeschool parents are generally parents, not teachers. We are not seeking to qualify as “teachers,” as we are responsible only for our own children, not thirty children who belong to others. One of the “legion” of reasons to homeschool is the ability to provide a custom education for our children, rather than forcing them to follow a standardized program. We implement this customization through the curriculum and down to the pedagogy. One cannot level the field when public schools and home education are not only played out on different pieces of ground, but engaged in two different sports.

(Submitted as a letter to the editor.)

For more articles, visit my Web site, Synergy Field

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Anecdotal Evidence

"How do you know they are learning?" people ask, referring to my homeschooled children. Their inquiries are well meaning, and yet, in the box. They have been taught that learning is measured by standardized testing, and that education is something bestowed, or “done to” by others.

It is hard to shuck the mantle of institutional education and recognize that human beings are hardwired to learn, to allow oneself to dance free of the constraints of institutional thinking, and to truly grasp that most things worth attaining cannot be measured by any test. My intention here is to provide anecdotal evidence of natural learning.

To read my articles, visit my Web site, Synergy Field.