Homeschool Essentials

Whether unschooled or highly structured, religious or secular, all homeschools encounter the same challenges. All successful homeschools exhibit the same essential qualities. This weblog will help you understand and apply those qualities, minimize frustration, and enjoy more success sooner.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Galileo's Heresy

Galileo Galilei not only had the most redundant name of his generation, he was the greatest scientist of his generation. Still, he got in trouble with Church authorities for teaching that the sun, and not the earth, was the center of the solar system.

In Galileo's day, it was common knowledge that the earth was the center of the solar system, indeed, the center of the universe. And like so much "common knowledge," it was false.

Actually, the idea made a great deal of sense. During the day, the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, after apparently sweeping through the sky. During the night the stars appear to rotate through the sky. Except, in those days, for five rogue stars.

These rogue stars had been observed and speculated about since the earliest times. They did not appear to follow any fixed patter, sometimes stalling, even backing up, before moving around again. The greeks called these "wanderers" or "planetoi." Yup, the other five planets eventually proved that old Sol. the sun, was the center.

A similar confusion has taken hold of the world of education and schools. State laws are built on it, even some of the most independent-minded homeschoolers fall for it. They put the teacher at the center of the learning system.

Teacher training, teacher "certification" or licensing, teacher preparation, lesson plans-- all these occupy the minds of legislators, regulators, administrators, and most spectators (You know, like your neighbors, who have no training, but just "know" homeschooling can't work).

Now, teacher licensing has nothing whatsoever to do with teacher competence, or, more importantly, student performance. Yet states and parents spend much effort and concern over the qualifications and training of teachers. Teacher certification deals with the successful completion, by the teacher, of certain courses. The teacher is observed while teaching, but student performance is not part of the mix.

It's a crazy system, really. It's like hiring a chef based on the food he has eaten. Does anyone care to eat what he cooks? Who knows. That's not what we look for.

But let's go back to the Churchill quote, "I am always ready to learn. I am not always willing to be taught." Isn't that the truth! And that's the whole point. Because if the student is not willing to be taught, the greates teacher in the world will fail to teach him. If nothing else, the lives of Socrates and Jesus should assure us of the truth of that assertion.

So, sorry to disillusion you, Mom. Too bad about your shiny new degree, young teacher. YOU are not the center of the learning universe. Deal with it, or be prepared to spend much of your life either irrelevant, frustrated, or both.

Next time, another false Sun.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Essential Qualities -- I

Today I begin the discussion of the Five Essential Qualities of Successful Homeschools. A full discussion of these qualities wlll last at least until summer, but don't be alarmed. We'll take numerous excursions, breaks to cover targets of opportunity, or answer questions, or deal with comments.

Although I'll be examining them primarily in reference to homeschooling, they apply to all learning situations, and more broadly to all sorts of motivational situations. Indeed, I have one application which examines them as the Five Essential Qualities of Leadership. So they have broad application.

Still, they were derived from observations of the scores of homeschool families. Although these homes had superficial differences, I could see that they had common factors below the surface, and it was these common factors that made them successful.

Over time I confirmed the observations and refined my description. So that's the provenance of the information I'm about to share with you.

Quality I: Learner Focused.

Some years ago, I hear Tom and Ray Magliozzi, hosts of NPR's "Car Talk," discussing a brand of auto parts with a reputation for shoddy workmanship. According to their story, the motto on the side of the box read, "[Brand Name]: There's no substitute for quality." In their inimitable way, the brothers declared, "They [the company] ought to know. They've tried everything else."

This comes to mind because I find that it describes most schools, classrooms, and homeschools, when it comes to this first quality, focusing on the learner: They've tried everything else. And, with each wave of reform--always focused on "everything else," they confirm this once again. I can't even guess at the number of curriculum and regulatory committees--even a Governor's truancy panel-- that continually overlooks the central role of the learner.

For some reason, people forget that learning is volitional, that the learner has to want to. This causes them to make claims about studen behavior that are ludicrous. They continually claim that children/students will behave in outlandish ways, "Because it's good for them." Yeah, that's why kids line up when the spinach truck rolls around. Oops! No, it's the ice cream truck they go for. So that prompts the question, "Why do the kids want to. . ." eat spinach, do the problems, fill in the blanks. Because if they don't want to, it won't happen.

As Elbert Hubbard remarked, "You can lead a boy to college, but you cannot make him think." Yes, you can force a kid to do a workbook, but can you force him to retain anything? Of course not.

Now, does this mean that, when it comes to learning at home, the inmates should run the asylum? Do we let kids call all the shots? No. But it does mean that to be successful, we have to begin our understanding of learning with the learner.

This runs counter to every state law concerning education, and against conventional wisdom. But "conventional wisdom" is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

The next post will examine where the state, and nearly everyone else, thinks is the center of the process.

Monday, January 24, 2005

One of My Favorite Children's Authors-- John Ciardi

I really can't say enough about the late John Ciardi's (che-AHR-dee) poetry for children.

Mr. Rodgers never talked down to children, and John Ciardi never wrote poetry down to them. Yes, he wrote nonsense poetry, but it always has some substance, and sometimes a lot.

His best poetry for children has that timeless quality-- it entertains the children, and evokes a knowing "Ahhh!" from the grandparents. For example, the funny but wise title poem from Ciardi's Fast and Slow ends with a line that will have parents and grandparents smiling at its wisdom. It's one of my favorite poems of all time.

Or one of his poems about the shark (he has several in various books) which contains a line that we love to quote. Speaking of the shark's "one dark thought" -- which is always about eating-- Ciardi writes of the shark: "with his two bright eyes, and his one dark thought/He has only one, but he thinks it a lot."

Even his nonsense poems don't have the sense of triality that I find grating in Dr. Seuss. Even when having fun, Ciardi takes his poetry, and children, very seriously.

Another favorite is Doodle Soup , a collection of poems once again witty and wise. To this day my children (now 28, 24, and 21) love to get out this book when we dine together and read, "When Mummy Slept Late, and Daddy Fixed Breakfast," describing the misadventures of a father's attempts at cooking: "This time I got it right/But what landed on my plate/was between bituminous and anthracite." That poem still gets them howling with laughter, though I don't know why.

There's one about the Ice Cream truck getting stuck at the edge of town, and everyone pitching in to "lighten the load." "It's important to help as much as you can/Especially when it's the ice cream man." And a very wise one about a child's two heads-- one good and one bad. Sounds strange, but expresses a profound understanding of children.

Best of all, for the beginning reader is You Read to Me, I'll Read to You. Every other poem is written in first grade vocabulary. So the parent or grandparent can put the child on his lap, read one poem, and the child can read the next one, and so on through the book. And the poetry is all up to Ciardi's wonderful standard. Indeed, one poem entitled "I Wouldn't," is a tiny masterpiece in my opinion. Written in the most difficult, short lines, but masterfully expressed "The cat sat/on the hall floor/by the mouse house/with the small door--" It goes on that way to a delightful concluding question-- answered by the author in the title.

I really can't recommend these books too highly. They've given my family many hours of delight, as we share these wise, witty, beautiful, funny poems again and again.

You'll want a copy of all three, and they're rarely in stock at the local bookstore. Now that I think about it, it's time I bought them for my grandchildren. Gotta go!

Monday, January 17, 2005

All Learning is Toilet Training

If we learn nothing else from this exploration of the adventure of toilet training, let's at least understand this. A child's readiness is independent of the parents' needs.

Just because you're tired of changing diapers (who isn't?), just because you're embarrassed by someone's assessment of your parenting deficiencies (when won't that be?), and especially because you've decided you want it to happen NOW! -- doesn't mean your child is ready.

And please understand, this holds true (with the exception of diaper fatigue) for every other learning task your child will face. You may be ready for your child to read, to do calculus, or play the oboe-- so what? Never forget, as soon as these become battles, they become battles you cannot win. Even when you appear to prevail, it will cost you in the end.

Readiness is everything. We can't really accelerate it, we can only hold it back. Indeed, often our efforts to accelerate readiness result in significant tardiness in its development.

Like the mother trying to force her child's readiness for toilet training, but unwilling to cross his will on diet, whenever we find ourselves fighting over readiness, it's really a substitute for another battle we should be fighting, and which we can win.

We need to concentrate on our children's mental, emotional, and physical health, especially character, because character transfers to every other task. If we keep children healthy, they will learn.

One mother who had been homeschooling for a number of years, and whose children were both teenagers, came to me for supervision because her previous teacher moved away. Somewhat surprised by my approach, she tried it anyway, because she had grown so tired of always being the engine of achievement.

After two months, she and her children were so excited they would never go back. By letting go of the attempt to push, she had also let go of the responsibility, putting it on the chlidren, where it belonged. They assumed the responsibility gladly. Why? Because they realized that authority and responsibility go together. The battle had been over authority. So when Mom let go of the authority over their learning, they grabbed it eagerly, and began taking responsibility with it.

It was a relief to all concerned.

The battle over authority is the battle over toilet training, as well. Who's going to have authority over little one's sphincter muscles? Put that way, it's a no brainer. The child will, of course, no matter what we might wish. So don't fight that battle. Let the child have authority, and you'll be surprised at how quickly responsibility will make itself felt.

Comments are welcome. Just click on the comments link below, and you'll be shown how.


Friday, January 14, 2005

Why it hits the fan

In the previous blog, I mentioned the mother whose 3-y-o son refused to cooperate in his toilet training. In fact, his resistance reached the point where he was retaining his feces, just simply refusing to go! Since this is not a healthy situation, Doctors considered prescribing drugs for the child in order to "force" the matter. The mother, of course, was extremely reluctant to resort to this radical-- and potentially dangerous-- solution.

So I suggested she simply feed him fruit for a while, and let nature take its course. She replied to this suggestions, "Oh, but he doesn't like fruit."

One of the prime rules of parenting or teaching is choosing which battles to fight. You only have so much influence on your child, and if you squander it on trivial matters, you won't have any left when important issues arise. Here was a classic case.

Mother and son had locked horns in a classic battle of wills over toilet training-- but this was a battle which the mother could never win. Even in an extreme case, and these are not as rare as I would hope, where the parent obliterates the child's will and produces a totally compliant child, the parent loses. Because in making a child totally compliant, totally dependent, the parent has obligated himself or herself to directing that child's life forever-- or until the child encounters a more skilled controller and manipulator. These are the ingredients of tragedy.

Short of this scorched-earth, and ultimately self-defeating tactic, so long as the child's will remains intact, he or she will control their own sphincter muscles-- and there's nothing the parent can do about it.

So long as this remains a contest of wills, no amount of coaxing will get the child to relax those muscles on the toilet. And when the child discovers the discomfort and embarrassment they can cause the parents by releasing at an inopportune moment, the game is really over.

Being the supposed adult in the situation, the parent can avoid this becoming a contest of wills, avoid it becoming a problem, if they think about it. After all, the parent is not without advantages in this situtation.

Chief among these advantages is the simple fact that wearing a diaper is not pleasant. Few adults would choose to. At some point, the child will discover this unpleasantness, and desire to be rid of it. That is the golden moment of "readiness."

Unfortunately, adult readiness seldom synchronizes with child readiness. Tired of changing diapers, weary of insinuations by in-laws or others about one's competence as a parent, fatigued by stories about "cousin Samantha, who was toilet trained at 6 months," parents grow increasingly eager for little Fauntleroy to be a "big boy," and start using the toilet. This almost always anticipates little Fauntleroy's readiness by several months.

When mom, because it is generally she who bears this responsibility, decides "it's time for Fauntleroy to be a big boy" without regard to his readiness, the battle is joined. Chances are, she and dad should be focusing on something else, some other area of behavior where they're losing a battle they should be winning, like the mother I mentioned with the screaming children. Frustrated and worn out by the child's bad behavior in other areas, they decide to have a showdown in an arena they really care about-- but can't possibly prevail.

Why would I say a thing like this? Remember the mom whose child "Didn't like fruit?"

She had surrendered the battle of diet, and sought to regain the ground lost there in toilet training. So she was losing both.

Three-year-olds don't purchase or prepare their own food. It's unbelievable that this child actually disliked the flavor of every type of available fruit, or that he couldn't learn to like it. It just wasn't worth the trouble of his fussing and complaining, and, who knows, maybe throwing flatware or china. Those are all areas where, for the child's long-term good, the parent can and should prevail. But having failed on that battleground, the parents could not win the battle of the potty.

I should have known that I couldn't deal, in a couple of short blogs, with a topic on which many books have been written. So it will have to wait for the next installment--and the final one on this topic, I hope-- to finish up and draw larger lessons from this area of parental/child conflict. I will just finish with this: the key to toilet training is also the key to Math, to reading, and to virtually every other difficult area for parents, teachers, and children.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Essential Skill #3

We've already looked at two of the most important skills children ever learn, which they learn at home, before the age of five, under the tutelage of amateurs. Walking, a complex psycho-motor skill, and talking, an amazing cognitive achievement.

Today I will take up the third essential skill, and the only one which often causes difficulty: toilet training.

Mention the words "toilet training," and many a young mother's blood begins to run cold. Compared to either walking or talking, this is a simpler skill. Note that I did not say "simple," only that it is less difficult than the other two. Once the child becomes fully aware of the process, and his/her part in it, it should be a relatively easy habit to establish. But often it is not.

Why should this be?

A number of factors go into this messy equation. We understand those that motivate mothers better than the ones that motivate children, but that doesn't mean children are a total mystery on this issue. On the contrary, since they are young and unsophisticated, their motivations tend to be simple and direct. By contrast, parents are more adept at self-deception and rationalization, and often don't realize what's going on in their own heads.

Perhaps the simplest way to demonstrate this is with a true story. After speaking to a group of parents on the topic of these three essential skills, a young mother came to discuss her situation privately. "My three-year-old son," she said, "is resisting so strongly that he's retaining his feces. The doctor is considering giving him drugs." Hoping to deal with this one quickly, I suggested she feed him a diet of fruit for a few days. It wouldn't train him, of course, but it should get things moving. "Oh," she replied, "he doesn't like fruit."

For a host of reasons, this tends to be the first of these skills where we observe a contest of wills. Not that children and parents don't engage in many other contests of wills. It's just that in toilet training, children can assert their wills in a way that their parents cannot ignore.

Many children win the contest of wills when it comes to other obnoxious behaviors. The standards of civil behavior have deteriorated to the point where bratty children seldom elicit notice in society. Parents ignore their failure to get their children to behave in civilized ways, and take extreme umbrage should anyone else take notice.

"My children just scream," one highly offended (and highly incompetent) mother said to me. "It's their nature. It's just the way they are." Yes, (I could have added but did not) it's also their nature to demand their own way all the time, to ignore or subordinate the needs and desires of others, and to rant and rave when anyone opposes their will. All children scream and otherwise throw tantrums when thwarted. That's what parents are for, to help children learn to behave better. But that's for another day.

The point is that this mother, like many parents, had rationalized her children's misbehaviors away. Since it was "their nature," she could not be expected to do anything about it. And so it often is with a multitude of lesser offenses. It's "their nature" to make a mess and let others clean it up, too, and it comes to the child's urine and feces, only the most dysfunctional can still ignore them. So the lazy, rationalizing parent comes to this early day of reckoning. And makes a worse mess, if that's possible.

Even relatively competent parents can become exasperated by a child's reluctance to toilet-train. Even a child who has learned to comply with reasonable results will often have difficulty here.

The reason is quite simple. At first, neither the parent nor the child can control the child's bodily functions. At some point, the balance tilts, and the child can--and does-- control them, but not necessarily to the convenience of the parent. And that's where it all hits the fan.

There's too much here for one day's blog, so I'll continue it tomorrow. Then we'll look at this classic battle of wills, and its lessons for academic and other learning later on. You may be surprised by the solution.


Monday, January 10, 2005

Another Essential DVD

I'll get to essential skill #3 tomorrow. Today I want to talk about an excellent DVD for anyone serious about working with children.

It's The Horse Whisperer, released in 1998. The story is compelling and deeply moving, but for homeschoolers, it's even better-- it's deeply instructive.

A young girl named Grace, out for a ride with a friend, becomes a victim of a horrific accident. Her friend is killed, Grace loses one leg below the knee, and her horse is deeply traumatized. The mother, who has been a high pressure NY editor, used to having her way, immediately tries to fix everything. A leg can be replaced with a prosthesis, but scarred emotions and fractured relationships are much harder to deal with.

The stable owner recommends that Grace's horse be "put down." The angry, frightened Grace says to go ahead, an while they're at it to put her down, too.

So the mother goes looking for someone who can heal the traumatized horse, tacitly hoping that will bring Grace back, too. When she locates a renowned "horse whisperer" across the country in Montana, he refuses to help, even when she offers to fly him both ways first class, just for one day's time.

Unaccustomed to being denied, she then has the tranquilized horse loaded into a horse trailer, and she and Grace head across country, the beginning of an emotional odysey that eventually brings healing to the whole family.

"Tom Booker," the horse whisperer (played by Robert Redford) quietly assesses the needs, both of Grace and her horse, alternately soothing and challenging them, but always realizing the responsibility lies within each. It's a masterful example of how to mentor.

Time and again, the mother tries to evade her own responsibility, but Booker calmly brings her back to it. "It's not that simple," she says. "It's as simple or as hard a s you make it," Booker replies.

Booker's young nephew, the cutest cowhand in a genuine "aw shucks" way, almost steals every scene he's in. And he and his whole family are a testament to traditional family values, and how they foster integrity.

A treasure.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Essential Skill #2

Three of the most crucial skills children ever learn, they learn at home, by age five, with amateur teachers. We mentioned one a couple of posts ago: walking.

Today we'll take up another: talking. Walking and talking happen so naturally that we take them for granted. We wouldn't think of calling in "experts" unless some radical problem appears. Just because they happen naturally doesn't mean these are simple or easy skills. Quite the contrary.

How many adults enjoy learning a foreign language? Compared to the task of learning to speak, learning to read is, well, child's play.

Think about it. Children must learn that sounds make up words, and words are symbols which stand for other things, some concrete, like a table or a chair; some abstract. One of the first things a child learns to say is, "Mommy, I love you." Love is not a thing like a table or a chair, it is-- well, poets and philosophers have spent centuries trying to define this abstraction. Yet children quickly learn to associate the sound of the word "love," with that intangible quality.

It's amazing, really. Yet the vast majority of children learn it without significant difficulty. Why then, do so many children in America have difficulty learning to read? After all, in learning to speak they've already mastered the concept of sounds/words as symbols. That's the big conceptual leap. With reading, all they have to do is add one more layer-- recognizing marks (letters) as representing the sounds which make up words.

One of the keys to understanding why this is so will be revealed when we examine the third crucial-- and also quite complex-- skill that children learn early on. It's the only one that parents regularly struggle with-- and for the same reasons they struggle teaching children to read, to do math, and other supposedly "advanced" (but really simpler) academic skills.

If you're in a hurry to get started understanding your child better, I recommend Thomas Armstrong's "In Their Own Way"

It's one of the very best books ever on this topic!

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Homeschool Essential DVD

Today's entry will be short, because of the holidays, but now they're past, you can expect something pretty much every day for a while. I've got a lot to share over the next weeks and months.

I just have to share with you the best homeschool DVD I've seen in a long time. Last night my wife and I watched Fred Rogers, America's favorite neighbor This is three hours of wonderful material about his life, greate moments from his 900+ episodes of children's TV, and other remarkable episodes.

A highlight is the confrontation between Fred Rogers and Senator Pastore in a congressional hearing 30 years ago. It has to be seen to be believed.

Fred Rogers understood children, and ministered to the needs of millions of them for thirty years. And just listening to this caring man, imbibing his spirit, makes me better. As he said at one point in the video, he respected children. For me, that has always marked the difference between the really worthwhile material for children, and the mountains of schlock. The best material never talks down to children, never treats them as foolish or stupid.

Rogers focused on child development, and that's one of the things that made him so effective. It also makes the most effective approach to teaching, whether in school or at home. Spending time with someone who did it so well can only help us do better.

I could go on, but the best thing to do is get the DVD-- you'll be glad you did.