Friday, June 30, 2017

The Goldilocks Effect

Struggling learners often become frustrated with one or more subject areas. That frustration becomes a part of the parent-child relationship, leading to high emotion, intense battles, or avoidance. When I begin to work with kids and their families, the first step is to figure out where kids are performing, and then to “lay a path” to the next step in learning. In other words: I figure out where kids are stuck and work to help them become unstuck. This requires a bit of finesse, and is not a one-size-fits-all mission. It also requires time.

Struggling learners exist in all types of schools and in all types of families. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and if our weaknesses impact attention, working memory, speaking, listening, reading, writing, problem solving, or math skills, school becomes a source of pain.

I have the advantage of seeing what traditional school offers my clients. There are some great ideas I have borrowed for my own family and students. I also have the advantage of seeing what my private school clients are learning, as well. Now I have the advantage of seeing what Homeschool learning co-ops are teaching. It is like living a school version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Depending on the child, the school type and the subject matter, the curriculum can be either Too Much or Too Little, but sometimes  (if we’re lucky) it can be Just Right.


Here is my sense: Too Much often results in Too Little real learning. No matter the type of school, we can all benefit from finding that Just Right level of engagement.

While I support lots of reading and writing, there can be Too Much editing and Too Much grading. Peter Elbow calls graded writing “High Stakes” and ungraded/unedited writing “Low Stakes.” He advises more “Low Stakes” and less “High Stakes” for Just Right writing. That is why I am drawn to Brave Writer.

Likewise, reading can include Too Much high level text, and Too Little moderate level text. My kids had a mix throughout the year: some reading that was a challenge, some that was moderate, and some that was just fun. But kids who only read heavy classical literature tell me, “I don’t like reading anymore.” Even with reading and writing, finding the Just Right balance is critical.

In my own homeschool, I would get a sense of Too Much or Too Little as the year progressed. I found it easy to balance history because I believe so strongly in going a mile deep and an inch wide. Going deep was fun and interesting, so my kids were engaged. It always felt Just Right.

Likewise, once we did one writing project a month that was fully edited, with a lot of minor editing and freewriting during the week, I felt we hit a Just Right level in Language Arts. Brave Writer Copywork, which I turned into my own version of Intentional Copywork, made Phonics, Spelling, Vocabulary, and Grammar Just Right, too.

But I think I rarely hit a Just Right for science, and I definitely had Too Little for Geography! I tried to recruit co-op classes and camps to supplement, but these subjects haunted me. I would always try to go “gung-ho” to make up for a bad semester, but my efforts would soon fizzle out again. Of course I feel some regret over opportunities missed. My kids don’t think this way, however. Even when they say, “I wish I had learned…” they don’t assign blame.

But here is the thing: this Goldilocks Effect is the reality of all types of school. No matter the source of education, it is impossible to make all areas Just Right.  And as mentioned, individual learning challenges complicate any school learning, no matter the type. For all kids, there will be areas of learning that are just Too Much, some areas that are just Too Little, and a few things that turn out Just Right for that child. My continuous dynamic goal, in working with students individually, is to find and work within that Just Right zone. My goal, in our monthly coaching class, Roots Entwined, is to help parents find that Just Right level throughout their school year.

In other words, with the right kind of support, all students can learn “happily ever after!”

~Rita

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Post-it Note Challenge

Believe it or not, even our schedules involved post-it notes! My oldest daughter struggled with attention issues. She had a tendency to be oppositional, so whatever I said was met with immediate resistance. I tease her now about the time she was angry that I had planned a zoo day as a surprise: even though the zoo was her favorite place in the world, she was out of sorts just because... My daughter’s resistive nature plus her tendency to grind to a slow halt when doing independent work (that silent form of ADD) made all types of school difficult.

I think when a child challenges your homeschool, it is very difficult not have all of life revolve around that child. This becomes a challenge for the entire family! In this area of parenting, I have many regrets. As much as I tried and tried not to be pulled into emotional drama, I failed again and again. No matter how I varied our work, by varying choices, day’ sequence, or the week’s sequence, teaching my brilliant and loving child was challenging! The less she performed, the more I tried to control. Fortunately for all of us, a good friend offered me this advice: give her more autonomy. What? Give an underperformer who can’t get work done even more freedom? I thought it was more helpful to give her more guidelines and boundaries!

I felt I had turned our world upside down for my daughter already, but I could see that my “order” made her feel more and more oppositional. So I began my journey to work toward supporting her independence.

We sat down and discussed the problem and my new scheduling idea. I had heard of scheduling with Post-it Notes from my sister, who was then a support educator in Georgia. The idea was to let moving the Post-it Notes around a schedule be a visual “teacher” about the results of procrastination--or in my daughter’s case, grinding slowly to a halt.

Emma, of course, was opposed to my scheduling idea and had a better one. So, in the spirit of autonomy, I agreed we would give her idea a try first. But together we agreed that if her work level didn’t improve, we would try my Post-it Note idea.

Things played out as one might imagine, so eventually, we began a Post-it Note schedule.

Here is how it worked:

Every week the kids were given colored post-it notes of all that had to be accomplished for the week. They could devise any color coding system they preferred. I had them create a Post-it for everything they had to do for the week I immediately realized that  I often had way too many things crammed in a day! I am by nature a performance-driven person, so the visual reality of Post-its helped me face my problem as a homeschool mom and back down! (First learning is always my own! Duh!)

Some activities were permanently scheduled for everyone, so we placed those sticky notes on the schedule first. This is a good life lesson for all of us: the world doesn’t revolve around any of our moods. Music and art lessons were scheduled. Sports practice was scheduled. Co-op or outings were scheduled.


Next came sticky notes for “teaching time with mom.” This time had to be negotiated around everyone’s needs. I worked afternoons, so often this time had to be scheduled in the mornings--but we found times that allowed my oldest to use her best hour of the day--first thing in the morning.

Lastly, all the independent work time, such as math, reading, and writing, was up to each child. They could arrange those Post-its however they pleased. If they wanted to get all five math assignments done on Monday, go for it! If they wanted to put off math until after a leisurely hour of reading, let’s see how that worked out.

Anytime a job was completed, the sticky notes could be thrown away or moved off the calendar for later. (We realized it was silly to write Math five times, week after week. We started to store commonly used notes and reuse them--thank goodness!)

Our school week ended on Friday at lunch, so afternoons were free if all the work was done. If there were leftover unfinished Post-its, they were moved to Friday afternoon. If the kids had plans for Friday afternoon, they had to do work Thursday night to catch up. My oldest daughter often did this, but actually she didn’t mind. One thing she learned is that she liked spreading her day out, even into evening. She liked hanging out in the family room, work spread in front of her, while the rest of the family did other things.

The key to the entire experiment was the learning that came from moving sticky notes around. Again, any time a Post-it Note was not completed, it would be moved to the next day. Just like real life. Just like my life. Emma and I had many discussions about me having paperwork to do on a Sunday night because I didn’t get it done on a Wednesday. The reality of Post-it Scheduling is that I realized my kids were no different than I am. I put off work, too.

The post-it notes became a physical manifestation of work piling up and the value of making choices. It had three different lessons for three different kids with three different personalities:

Emma liked the autonomy of choosing more about her life. She wanted to be in charge and she could manage her emotions better when she felt independent. Emma became quite good at using her own planner after our visual experiment.

Moira liked to make lists and check them off. She liked to get work done early and have more free time. She began to manage her week so it was paced to her preferences. Honestly, Moira was going to plan with or without me and my Post-its, but it gave her a new way to think about her week.

Vinny continued to procrastinate, but he began to understand how to plan ahead and when to buckle down and get things done. He learned that he had to study a few nights before a test, not just the night before! Vinny was in traditional school, filled with homework and deadlines and grades. So, we used the Post-it method to help him manage his weeks during his eighth grade year. Honestly, Vinny hated those Post-it notes more than anyone! But it helped him return to using either a white board or a planner more effectively, which is always good.

I learned to give my kids more grace, to back off in my over-planning, and to value my kids as thinkers. There are so many things we just teach our kids to do: use the potty, tie their shoes, brush their teeth, make their beds, clean up the kitchen, etc. It is easy to want them to become little soldiers, performing at top level all day long. Post-it scheduling helped us all discuss how some days are not as wonderful as others. How much is our doing and how much is out of our hands. When it pays to procrastinate, and when it doesn’t. Who is responsible for the schedule we each create? I realized I had to let my kids be kids, but also be average people.

I also learned that I had to make the shift from “showing them how” to “letting them discover how” in their personal learning. This is a critical parenting adjustment that I had to make--that we all have to make--though some of us are slower than others! Probably I was too controlling, but some of my learning to let go is part of a natural process that occurs when kids move into the middle years of 9-12. I needed to give them space and opportunity to THINK about how they THINK and LEARN about how they LEARN. I needed to let them think and learn without hijacking the process. Post-it note scheduling was a way I let them think and learn about their own habits and work ethic.


Of course, figuring out how to LET KIDS LEARN when they are tweens, teens, and young adults is an ongoing process. Now that I have kids in their twenties, I need to figure out when to keep my mouth shut, when to offer help, when to let them struggle through life as we all did. This parent-child dance that we call “more of you/less of me” has tricky steps! It varies with each child and circumstance. Yet, it always comes down to my ability to figure out how to grow into my ever-evolving version of Parent.

~Rita

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Big Picture

I am a big picture person, so I planned my home school by months, not days. I wish I had some of those plans now!  I knew I wanted my months to be meaningful, but I am performance-driven too. So I knew I would have to prioritize the fun, meaningful experiences. I prioritized museum trips, plays, the nature time in my planning, month by month. I started with months, then broke those into weeks as each month drew near. We didn’t really plan by day until the beginning of the week. But I had rough ideas of what needed to be done on free days. In this way I prioritized learning.

The monthly schedule tended to revolve around a few key elements:
·    Life
·    Reading
·    Writing
·    Art
·    Social events

By life I mean that I quickly realized that if we were going to succeed, and do something better than traditional school offered, we were going to have to move with the rhythms of our lives. I planned for travel, holidays, and busy months, so we all could enjoy them and be less frustrated.


September would be a new start and a return to co-op, with two family birthdays. We had traditions around visiting the apple farm and cleaning up the garden. We made photo albums of our vacations and created art outside.

October would include planning costumes to fit our history themes, because my kids liked Halloween. We planned for going to the Zoo, hiking, and enjoying the autumn beauty.

November would include writing stories about family, food or travel-based writing projects, and art for Thanksgiving travel or company. We would cook and add to our homemade recipe books. We explored cultural traditions.

December was given completely over to the holiday: baking, writing stories, and creating decorations or gifts. This was usually a huge art and music month! The kids always needed extra music practice time due to their holiday recital, too. And it is a short month with the holiday.

January was poetry month. We read and wrote poetry all month, year after year. This became one of our favorite parts of home school. Each year, the kids wrote poems, picked their favorites, then went on a shopping trip to select various decorative papers to fit each poem. They painstakingly re-wrote their favorites (after editing sessions with mom) onto the paper of choice. These were added to a poetry collection year after year. At the end of the month, the poetry books were wrapped up and given to their dad for his birthday. My husband would sit with each child, discussing and reading their poems together.

February was Shakespeare month. Every year we read a play, with some volunteer time ushering for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. There are fantastic picture books depicting plots, as well as great movies to choose from. Sometimes we compared famous scenes to see which actor we liked best in a given role. We drew out plot arcs, quoted famous lines, and engaged in any fun Bard activities we could find. My kids actually thought Shakespeare Month was a national event--they never realized it was just a title I gave to February. (By the way, I did not intent to take away from Black History Month. Rather, I tried to incorporate multicultural stories throughout our learning, month after month, depending on our areas of study.)

March and April tended to include a focus on all things science—this would be a big time to catch up on science projects, experiments, museums, zoos, aquariums, etc. We created lap books and formal lab reports. I just found spring seemed to inspire us all to hunker down and catch up on science, with nature being a big part of it all. We also covered Health in the spring, and I used my local YMCA’s classes as a resource.

May became a self-study month. I wanted my kids to have some time to determine what they wanted to learn. I wasn’t an un-schooler, but I did appreciate the notion that self-directed learning is a critical ingredient for developing an intellectual drive. My kids tended to pursue reading and writing, but they also developed wonderful plays and built imaginative worlds. My oldest loved all things biology, so she pursued her interests in those areas, as well. They spent extra time with music and art, and they tended to recruit friends into their plans.

~Rita

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Shared and Independent Reading

I was recently invited by the Learning Well Community to share my story on their Instagram page (@learningwell) -- my "Day in the Life" as a veteran home school parent (#lwdayinthelife). If you know me, you know I wrote many more ideas than I could include on small Instagram posts, so I decided to turn these expanded reflections into blogs for those who would like to read more. I was asked to discuss how I planned our days, what curriculum I used, what I learned, and my regrets and successes. Since it is now summer, I began with my summers . . .  

All summer I would plan our home school year. I always started with History.
I am, by nature, a "big picture" person...so I knew that I wanted our big picture to combine History and Language Arts, that I wanted us to have authentic experiences with science and nature, and that I wanted us to have time to be creative and social.

Every summer I would spend my time planning for the next year. I would select my time in history, and I would scour the catalogs and my friend/mentor's library for ideas. I would read for myself to gain a general idea of the time period, then I would build around two reading mediums: read aloud time and independent reading time. Our read aloud time would be me reading literature to all the kids while snuggled on the couch, and me reading expository text that taught us about the time and period. If it was boring to me, we looked elsewhere. If it was boring to them, likewise. I knew I couldn’t cover everything about a particular time-period and I didn’t try. Mostly, we had big, juicy conversations (as Brave Writer likes to say). The kids would have independent reading books that fit the time-period somehow—and these would be sprinkled throughout the year.


My kids were always a part of the planning conversations. They knew they would have a great deal of personal/fun reading time, too, so the idea of assigned reading was generally a positive notion. I love to read, so I always have a stack of books by my bedside. My kids looked forward to seeing their own pile of books grow (and they loved the bookstore and library excursions)! They were generally assigned one book per month—books only at their solid comfortable reading level. I found that many of the home school programs tend to push the grade levels, so I generally looked a year or two below grade level. I didn’t want to overwhelm them. I wasn’t worried because our read aloud stories would expose them to higher grammar and vocabulary levels. I wanted their independent reading to be manageable and enjoyable. This definitely paid off--when my kids went back to traditional high school, they were reading above grade level!

I knew as a reading therapist that silent reading is only helpful if kids can read accurately and fluently. Otherwise it is an exercise in pretending or guessing—which is unhelpful. I wanted their assigned reading to be at a level they could read proficiently!

~Rita