Wednesday, April 30, 2008

a curriculum follows a question

We were in LA for a week or so earlier this spring, and the kids and I spent a few days exploring. We went to the library (right across from our hotel), we walked around the neighborhood (no grocery stores or laundromats), and we took the Metro. A lot. One of the places we took the Metro to was Chinatown. Here's me in my two dollar hat, purchased to shield my eyes from the Southern California sun. Funny, but I'm not using it around here nearly as much.
This was a trip we'd been planning since we first started homeschooling back in October. When I explained to the boys that we'd be able to do more field trips, and that we'd have more time for family trips that would be our field trips, the first place they wanted to go was China. I explained that we couldn't actually afford to go to China, but maybe we could go to Chinatown. I was thinking NYC at the time, but there we were in LA with a Chinatown visible from the train, so off we went.

But I digress. Back to the Metro. We were going everywhere by Metro, because we didn't have a car, and there was nothing useful (like food) in our neighborhood. So the kids learned to read a subway map, and learned to recognize our stop, and so on. They also learned how to use the automated ticket machines. Or rather, they learned to watch me try to get the automated ticket machines take our debit card, and then give up and give it our precious cash.

When the machines gave change, they gave it in dollar coins. These coins engendered a lot of interest, not being the usual increment of money that is metal and round. One of the dollar coins was a Sacagawea dollar.

"Hey Mama, who's Sacagawea?" I don't even remember who asked.

"Oh, she's this Indian lady who traveled around with Lewis and Clark when they were making those maps," I said. We'd already learned a little bit about Lewis and Clark when Big started making maps of the neighborhood, so they had some context. "When we get back home, we'll get some books out of the library and find out more about her."

The miracle is that I actually remembered to do just that. We found lots of great picture books about Sacagawea, about York, and about the expedition in general. We also poked around in the adult section, and came home with a copy of the journal kept by Lewis and Clark, and a DK book of recent photos taken along the route.

The picture books are ostensibly for Little, but I've noticed that Big has a sort of magical radar that goes off when someone is reading out loud, and he often shows up to listen. Some of the picture books are very closely based on the diaries kept by Lewis and Clark, and follow them even down to the dates. This gives us a great opportunity to think about the modern-day interpretation of historical fact. For example, there's the apocryphal story about Sacagawea saving the entire expedition by fishing many essential items out of the water after the boat swamped. We looked in the diary, and found that, at least from the perspective of Merriweather Lewis, this was not such a big deal. The event was recorded, but he doesn't seem to think her efforts that day were essential to the overall success of the journey. Interesting. So I can ask questions like, "Why do you think the modern-day writers of Sacagawea's story might want to exaggerate this event?"

The books about York are similarly enlightening. As Lewis's personal slave, York was the only member of the expedition who wasn't paid for his work. Some of the books have great historical information about slavery in general. For instance, one book describes the marriage customs among slaves. They didn't include any vows about 'til death do us part' because everyone knew couples and families could be parted at any time by their masters who could sell them.

So we get a chance to talk about some of the not-so-pretty aspects of Western Expansion, just by reading stories. Over and over, Lewis and Clark write of their sense that they are the first civilized people to set foot in these lands, even as they encounter people who are settled and civilized, with laws and customs and art work and complex cuisines: all the markers of civilization.

This is good stuff, and it's all on my agenda as an educator. I want them to question the motives of people who write books for children. I want them to consult primary sources for history, and to look deeply at the intellectual and cultural context of those sources. I want them to understand that slavery was an abomination, that it was perpetrated on people as fully human as we are, and that its effects echo through our lives even now. Of course, it answers some of what New York State wants me to be doing with my kids too. I needed some kind of American History topic this year, and we are finding this one to be particularly rich, both in terms of available materials and issues raised.

Much of this was a surprise to me, however. I am not an historian of any stripe, and I know very little about the Lewis and Clark expedition. When the original question was asked, I answered it not from a wealth of knowledge, but by accessing a factoid I'd memorized, probably in a Social Studies classroom, some year long in the past. I wasn't even completely confident that I was answering it correctly.

The point is that I don't have to know all this stuff; I just have to be ready to jump on it when the question comes along. It's impossible to predict which questions will become curriculum, but over time I think I've developed a sense of which questions to just answer, and which ones should send us running off the library.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


I've been running an experiment the last few days, to see what happens when I stop doing laundry, stop making bread, and stop vacuuming in order to knit as I listen to Rufus Wainwright, Leonard Cohen, and Steely Dan.

So far the results seem to be that I finish the socks I've been working on, but we run out of clean clothes, bread, and the house is suddenly overrun by bits of paper (Little is fascinated by scissors these days) cat hair, and crumbs. Just in case you were wondering.

I've been thinking a bit about my position that educational systems are bad for kids because they mean that the teachers/parents aren't responding to the kids and where they are, what they need. It becomes an education imposed from without, rather than inspired from within.

And then I started thinking about it a little more, and I realized that I really need a system for my house, because the house is not my thing. Cleaning and keeping things tidy does not come naturally to me. I have to think about it, or I'll just skip it. (Incidentally, I do have a system. I've just chosen to overlook it for a few days.)

Teaching, on the other hand, is my thing. I love working with kids, love figuring out what they want, what they mean when they say inscrutable things, love helping them communicate better with each other. Teaching is the place where I am most truly myself. It is my vocation, my right livelihood.

What I'm trying to say is that I don't need a system because teaching is my passion. It's the thing I think about most, care about most, read about most, so it's pretty easy for me to fly without instruments, so to speak. I am not willing to take the position that the only people who should be teaching their children at home are people who have a similar passion. There are so many factors that go into the decision to homeschool that it is just too much to ask that everyone who chooses it also be able to construct the curriculum day to day, following the children's needs. Not because they wouldn't want to, but because they just might not feel equipped.

And that's why lots of people really need a system, and who am I to fault them for it?

So my question now is this: is it interesting, or would it be interesting, to read more about the process that takes us from a simple question posed by a child, to a full-blown integrated curriculum that spans several months?

Let me know, and I'll write about that. Or I could just go back to posting pictures of my socks, if you'd rather.

Friday, April 25, 2008

who's in charge around here?

Another great question from anthromama in the comments:

When you allow the children to lead, will they grow up thinking that they only need to study or do what they want?

My children would die laughing to think that someone out there in cyberspace wonders if they get to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Just rolling. On the floor. Laughing.

Here's how it goes in my house. In the morning, after Big has dressed and eaten and done his morning chores (NB: ideal version), he and I get ready to do school. I don't say to him: "Gee, honey, do you think you might like to do school today?" or even, "When do you think we might do some school today?"

Instead, I say something like this: "Let's get ready for some school. I'd like you to do another topic in your math book today, and I want you to do some writing. You also need to practice your recorder. Which one of those thing do you want to do first?"

Let's say he chooses writing. Fine. I'll say "Great. Do you want to write in your journal today, or do you want to write on the computer?" He already knows that, except in some very specific and unusual circumstances, he can write about anything he wants. He wrote a long fairy tale through most of the winter, he's been writing poems lately, and he has several stories started on the computer.

So he goes off and does those things. Some of it he can do on his own. I make sure I'm around and not distracted when he's doing math, because he needs that support, but he doesn't need or want my help when he practices his recorder. He has only recently been willing to show me his writing, but I've been surreptitiously monitoring it all winter, and I will use his writing to work up more teacher-directed curriculum.

For example, I noticed that he was confusing plurals, possessives, and contractions in his writing, so we sat down one morning and learned about what the differences are, how they look, how they are used. Then over the next few days, we came up with lists of words in each category. He doesn't confuse them anymore.

It's child-led because we wouldn't have covered this topic if he hadn't shown that he was confused about it and needed to learn it. It's teacher-directed because I noticed he needed it and created the work that would address it.

Another example: we have struggled to find a good way to do math. It is clear to me that we have to do math every day, and that there has be some time built in for skills practice. At first I thought I could just come up with the curriculum on my own, but it turns out I'm not so smart when it comes to math. I can figure out where his skills are lacking, and I can come up with problems that address those skills, and I can teach him how to solve those problems. And that turned out to be the most boring approach ever invented to any subject. He was bored, I was bored, and it was just ugly. We had some books of math puzzle books, which require good problem-solving thinking, but that was spotty and not enough.

After I blogged about this struggle, Shaun recommended Ed Zaccaro's Challenge Math books. (Thanks Shaun!) These books have pretty much saved our lives, math-wise. They're fun, they're comprehensive, they're challenging. Big One loves them. This is the first time he's had fun in math since our beloved school closed, and I made the decision to leave our wonderful math curriculum behind.

So (just to draw this connection again) it's child-centered because I was listening to his concern and heeding his frustration, all the time knowing that we needed to do math in some kind of way. I could have just said, "Look, we've got to do math and this is the way I've decided to do it." I could also have said, "Oh never mind, I guess Big One isn't meant to do math in life. We'll just drop it." But I listened to him, knew we needed math in our lives, and kept looking, so we found something good.

anthromama goes on to say:

...I have personally observed homeschool parents who essentially constantly defer to their children, which in my experience is bewildering for the child and the opposite of empowering. The general Waldorf view is that children need adults to have natural authority--not authoritarian, but authoritative. I wonder how child-led learning could work with that.

I've personally observed some homeschooling families like that, too. I've also observed plenty of school-going children who are calling the shots, and whose parents are falling all over themselves to comply with the child's latest demand. This is just not a feature of child-led learning. It's a parenting style, although I hesitate to call it parenting at all.

I agree that this so-called parenting style is upside down and backwards, and that children need to know there are limits, and that you're there to hold the line. That doesn't mean you're not watching them to see how things are going, and it doesn't mean you're ruling every little detail of their lives by decree.

Children need to be listened to, and they need to know that they have some power in the home. But not all of it.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

sick day knitting projects

Big is feeling glunky. Nasty head cold, bad cough, general exhaustion. We've canceled almost all our plans for today, and he has agreed to stay mellow and in his room for the one remaining event (a recorder class he doesn't participate in so far.)

So Little and I will continue to check in on our various gardening projects, and we're going for a walk to visit a neighbor's garden. After that, I'm planning to knit a lot. I have more projects going at once than usual for me, and here they are.

Uptown Boot Socks, from Interweave's Favorite socks, knit from Opal 6-ply. Are you noticing that even though the pattern doesn't call for it, I've reversed the cable, so my socks will be mirror images of each other? Thanks to Grumperina's excellent tutorial on cabling without a cable needle, this is child's play. (And you know I give the utmost respect to the play of children.)
Sorry mom, these fit me fine.

Socks from Trekking XXL, using Cat Bordhi's sky architecture. Coming along. The gusset goes at the very top of the instep. I tried to get a good photo, but, well, you should try taking a picture of the top of your foot sometime. Not easy.
These also seem to be fitting so far.

Chevron Rib Tank, a free pattern available from Knitting Daily. This is the front. I'm using Bamboo, from Southwest Trading Company. I like this yarn a lot, and I love the colors. If this doesn't fit me, I'll either give it to someone smaller than myself, or rip it out and knit it for me. This is the first sleeveless sweater I've ever been interested in, and it may be the only one I ever wear. That is, if I wear it. I mostly don't see the point of handknitted objects meant to be worn in the summer.

And finally, Diamond Fantasy Scarf, by Sivia Harding. I'm knitting this from a nameless coned laceweight purchased on Ebay years ago. You may notice (from the red cable) that I'm using one of the new Addi lace needles, and I like it very much, although it's not the life-altering knitting experience others have described. These needles are pointier and less slippery than the regular Addi Turbos.

Off for a walk!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

goals and objectives, part two

I gotta say something.

I didn't mean to imply (and I hope I didn't) that it is only because my kids are somewhere on the gifted spectrum that I can be relaxed about milestones and ages and keeping pace with externally prescribed academic goals. I really believe this is something that can be applied to all children. It's just that I don't have to think too hard about it, because I know that my kids would be more or less "caught up" if they were to suddenly enroll in a public school.

In fact, what I really think is that it is all the more important for children who somehow defy the expected learning trajectory to be allowed to develop at their own pace. This goes for both ends of the bell curve.

I had a student, years ago, who was not reading. She was too old to be not reading, and I had been working with her for over a year in a very concerted effort to get her the tools she needed to begin reading. Her parents were freaked, and I was concerned, too. Not because she wasn't reading, but because I could tell that she didn't know a lot of stuff she needed to start to put it together and begin reading. I started working even more with her, after school. I met with her parents, and we talked about ways they could support her at home with the skills she needed for reading.

And then, slowly, haltingly, she began to read. She was mostly reading from texts she'd memorized, but sometimes she was able to bring it all together and decode an unfamiliar word. I was so, so pleased, and I knew that we could build on this success, and with practice and discipline, she would eventually be able to read along with her peers.

Her parents were not pleased, not in the least.

Guess why. Go ahead, guess.

Because she wasn't reading on grade level. Here was a child whose entire approach to the reading enterprise had been, shall we say, circuitous and unconventional. Reading was not her thing. She would rather have been constructing fabulous things out of blocks and what not. She read as little as possible, and only to satisfy me, her teacher, and her parents. There was just nothing, absolutely nothing, in her history to suggest she should be reading on grade level, and everything to suggest she was going to do it her own way, in her own time.

If they were going to compare (and what parent doesn't) I wanted them to compare her work to where she'd been last year, not to the other kids her age. Because she wasn't like other kids her age.

And really? Neither was anybody else. Every kid I ever taught had his or her own set of gifts and deficits. Some of the most intelligent, insightful kids I taught had some of the most challenging difficulties. We called it uneven development, but I'm beginning to suspect that "uneven" is more normative than anything else. Every kid has some gifts, and some gaps.

Just like people. Imagine that.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

goals, objectives, standards, and the like

From the comments to my post about child-led learning, anthromama asked:

I would be interested to hear about whether you have any specific goals for your sons, any milestones that you would like them to pass by a certain age, etc. Essentially, how you will gauge how they are doing. Or if you have something else you are measuring, either qualitative or quantitative.

The short answer is yes.

But I'm guessing you're not here for a short answer, are you? Or at least, I'm not here to give short answers.

I have lots of specific goals for my sons. I want them to love reading, writing, and researching, to be interested and engaged with the world, to develop rigorous thinking about math and science, to have an understanding of cultural conflicts in this country and in the world, and to understand that there are many ways of looking at various kinds of problems. I want them to play music, draw, and paint.

I also want them to have a deep and satisfying knowledge about how to create a comfortable home, by taking part in the daily work that is required to do that. I want them to be able to understand basic directions and find their way home from a friend's house, the mailbox on the corner, or the grocery store.

I want them to have a basic understanding of American and world history, to know a little something about the history of art, and to have a deep understanding about how to find the answers to specific questions that arise.

I want them to have an understanding of how to meditate and do yoga, as tools for living in this world. I want them to know how to eat well.

One of my most important goals is to allow them to reach developmental milestones when they themselves are ready to do so. So I'm not concerned if Little doesn't read "on time," because I have assessed him carefully so I know he doesn't have any kind of reading disability, and my more important goal is that he love to read and write, so I am content to allow that set of skills develop organically.

I'm unconcerned with seeing that they reach specific milestones at certain ages for a number of reasons. For one thing, I believe that milestones are artificial constructs that frequently don't have much relevance for kids. In my first year of teaching, I had a multi-age class in which my youngest student (age 6) wasn't reading, and my oldest student (age 9) was reading on a 12th grade level, and of course there was every reading level in between. Every one of those kids was doing fine, and there was worthwhile, developmentally appropriate work for each of them to do at every moment of the day.

There is a huge range that is normal, or acceptable, or just fine. It is only the graded system in which all kids of a certain age are expected to do the same thing that has created the notion in our minds that this is the only way to ensure our kids are "on track."

The other reason I'm not worried, and I haven't written much about giftedness here because for me it's not particularly relevant, is that my kids are pretty smart. They have never been in an educational setting where it was important for us to find out exactly how smart, so I don't know exactly where they fall on that bell curve. During my teaching years, I had a total of three children who had tested 'profoundly gifted,' and my kids are not like those kids. My kids are more garden-variety gifted. They love to read and reason, they are naturally curious about the world, and school work is easy for them. I know they would be in a gifted and talented program at the local public school, but I also know that it wouldn't be enough.

And that is a big part of why I'm teaching them at home.

Monday, April 21, 2008

house projects

Joe and I have made the unbelievably adult decision that we will not go away for our annual anniversary weekend. We've been going to the beach once a year while my parents take care of the kids, but this year we want to do something else with that money, like pay off some of our fabulous trips from the past.

So the kids are still going to my parent's house for the weekend, but we've agreed to get some work done on some of the house projects that have been languishing. There are so many to choose from.

We could work on this, which is our back porch and needs to be jacked up a little more, then secured in place, then the stuff that keeps the wildlife out replaced:
Or we could work on this, the front porch, which has been a long restoration project. We're almost there, but the final details are fiddly and require some small lumber purchases, not to mention paint.
And then there's this. Doesn't this look frightening? I hardly know what to make of it. It's a hole in my foundation along the north side of my house, and it grew bigger all through the winter. I imagine all that needs to be done is chip off the loose stuff, prep the area in some way, and then slop some new kind of goo on there, but I don't know what kind of goo to get. Need some advice on this one.
Doesn't it look like my house is trying to tell me something?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

child-led learning: try it, you'll like it

This is a post for those who think letting the child's interests, academic needs, and questions lead a homeschool curriculum is too much work. I hope to demonstrate that in fact, it is the very opposite. All it requires is that you don't already have anything planned, or you're willing to drop it from time to time, and that you're paying attention when your child is talking.

Example the first.

A few weeks ago, Little and I were looking through my alumni magazine, in which was featured an artist working in mosaics. Little asked, "What's a mosaic?" I love this age (5), because there are so many interesting things he doesn't know about yet. I explained that it's a picture made by sticking many small pieces of something to a surface. It can be tile, glass, ceramic, what have you. Then we got out the paints and paper and completely painted several pieces of paper a few basic colors, and then some not-so-basic colors. I wish I could show you pictures of this stage, but those images are on Joe's computer.

After the sheets of color had dried, we cut them into squares roughly 1" across. Then Little and I made mosaics. We just stuck our paper "tiles" onto big pieces of butcher paper.

Here's Little's:

And here's mine:

Big made one too (his included some small old bits of toys and various household flotsam) but he gave it to the wedding couple out in LA.

Example the second.

I have been teaching a small hands-on science class to a group of homeschooled kids. There are seven kids. The youngest is 5 and the oldest is 11. We started with a meeting in which I told them what sorts of resources I had available and which topics we could study, and they decided to start by learning about air and air pressure. Which is what we have done, once a week for about a month.

Last week, several of the kids were digging around in my garden before class started, and they found what they were absolutely convinced were worm eggs. I was not so convinced, but I kept my skepticism to myself and they continued to explore and investigate. This week, when I was planning for our science class, I realized that there was potential for an interesting science project at the intersection of their conviction (that these little gray balls were worm eggs) and my skepticism (no way, they've gotta be seeds).

This week, we gave the weird little gray balls some soil and water:

You can't see them, they're buried.

We articulated some theories about what we think the little gray balls might be, and made some predictions about what the outcome might be with each of our theories. The class, like any class, has widely ranging literacy abilities, so I did the writing and the kids did the talking.

And that's all there is to it. There are some kinds of curriculum for which a parent or a teacher's biggest job is to pay attention and then get out of the way. I really believe that kids will ask the questions that lead to the experiences they need.

Important caveat: I think it would be a big mistake to let a child's natural curiosity about something like long division lead the math curriculum. At least in my house: Big would never get there. But I find that I need to do relatively little of this sort of parent-imposed learning, because so much of what the boys are curious about leads us naturally into intellectually robust curriculum.

And it's not a lot of work. In fact, I think it's got to be less work than following a science curriculum or an art curriculum. It's just fun. The day we made the mosaics, we did art for three hours straight.

And I bet you Little will never forget what mosaic means.

Friday, April 18, 2008

oh. my.

Well, there certainly are a lot more people around here lately. Thanks to Shaun and Jove and Casey, this blog has seen an increase in visitors every day this week, and thanks to Sitemeter, I can watch it happen. I'm gratified, but a little nervous. On the one hand, more visitors means more comments, and the commenting has been superb. If you're visiting for the first time, please visit the comments. There are some really interesting and thoughtful people who are engaging with the issues I'm raising, and raising new ones. You are all giving me a lot to think about. On the other hand, I can't imagine what ya'll are going to do when you find out that I mostly blog about knitting and keeping house.

Here's a question for all those who homeschool: Is it possible for you to imagine a school to which you would send your kids? I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and I'm cooking up a post about my vision for a school that would tempt me away from homeschooling.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

keep those systems off my kids

I had this incredibly nurturing and thought-provoking day with an old friend earlier this week. I've known this woman about as long as I've known my husband (almost 17 years) but we've been out of touch for the last eight or so. I used to babysit for her daughter, who is now an adult with a Master's degree. She now has a son the same age as Little, and the boys spent the day digging in the dirt, building, and creating performances for us.

She homeschooled her daughter, and is now homeschooling her little son. We talked about many things, including various alternative approaches to education. Her daughter was enrolled in a Waldorf school briefly, but it didn't work out, so she brought her home.

I took the position in that conversation, and I'm taking it now, that any system, be it Waldorf or Montessori or NCLB or the latest ELA test imposed by New York State, cannot serve the best interests of the child. This is because the teachers (or parents) are referring to some authority outside the classroom.

The authority belongs in the classroom (or in the home) with the teacher and the children. Each teacher (or parent) has to work out for themselves whether the adult will have more say in how the learning swings or the children will, but it has to be a balance between those two: the adult who is facilitating the learning, making it possible, and the kids who are there to accrue the tools they need to function in our culture. All these terms would need to be defined, of course: learning, tools, function, culture, and it is by the definition of these terms that many policies and curricula have been imposed on many groups of kids. It is when we decide what our kids really need to know in order to function in what version of our culture that we decide how the learning is going to happen, what the kids will learn, in what order, by what means.

I think this is the primary place where public education has gone so badly awry: nobody trusts the teachers, and certainly nobody trusts the kids. But without that trust, children are just "receiving an education;" they're not actually being educated. They aren't learning how to think, to trust themselves to find out what they need to know, and they aren't learning to work things out in any meaningful way. They're just learning that somebody out there has a notion about what they should be doing all day, and they must sit still for it.

My position is this: the reference has to be the child, in the context of the larger culture and the role the child will eventually play in that culture. We want, of course, for our children to be prepared for a wide variety of roles, so it is they who are making this decision. We don't want them to be limited by their educations.

You have to look at the child, or the children, in a classroom. You can't be looking at some book written by somebody who's never met your kids, or known your community.

That's what I like about Dewey: the reference is the child, and he doesn't imagine himself to know anything about all children everywhere, except that they are capable of real work and they want to engage with the real world.

Now I am sure that there are many Montessori teachers and many Waldorf teachers (and I include parents teaching their kids at home in this category) who use the structure of the philosophy as a sort of invisible framework, and for whom the primary reference is actually the kids. This is what Anthromama was saying in the comments: you study up on the philosophy, and then you let it go when you actually engage with your kids.

My sister-in-law is a good example: she went to a Waldorf school, founded another one when she got older, and enrolled her young daughter in yet another. She loves Waldorf. But she also knows that it doesn't work for every child, and she knows her child, and when the Waldorf school seemed like it wasn't a good fit for her daughter, she brought her back home.

Evenspor is another good example. She loves the Montessori approach, but she is mostly looking at her child. She has goals that are based in a system, but then she looks at her child to figure out how to get there.

But I am equally sure that there are teachers who slavishly follow the precepts of their chosen philosophies, to the point where they don't even see the children in front of them. I might even say that there are more slavish followers than there are creative thinkers in these systems. I might even be pushed into saying that it is the very creation of a system of education that gives birth to slavish followers.

And that, my friends, is just wrong.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Little insisted that this was so beautiful we had to put it on the blog. He even delayed the eating of this very delicious mango, in order for me to take the picture. This was a big sacrifice for Little, who lives on fruit and air, and particularly loves mango.

The sun was streaming into the kitchen through the back door, and the moment was very beautiful, as was the day. We have finally left the gray months behind us.

I am honored that so many people are bringing their considered opinions and ideas to these discussions, particularly the last post. Thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

homeschooling parents and teachers

I've been thinking about the collision of two worlds lately, or the overlap in the worlds between classroom teachers and parents who opt to keep their kids out of school to teach them at home. I'm thinking about it in part because of the brou-ha-ha in California, where suddenly a bunch of people seemed to be saying that homeschooling parents were going to need a teaching credential. The issue has calmed down, as many were saying it would. I also have a friend who homeschools whose sister-in-law is a teacher who thinks my friend is not qualified to teach her kids at home.

I have something to say about this.

On the one hand, there are the teachers who believe that their degree has prepared them for the work they're doing. It's hard for them to see that someone could do a good job of what they imagine to be the same work without a similar credential.

On the other hand, there are the parents who stay home with their school-age children, who have daily evidence that they are doing a good job, and that it can be done without a background in educational theory. It's hard for them to see that teachers need their specialized degrees: after all, they have elementary educations themselves, don't they? Do they really need to know how to teach long division, as long as they remember how to do long division?

The two sides feel understandably threatened by each other. I am here to tell you that both sides are confused. They think they're doing the same thing: teaching kids the stuff they need to learn how to do. They are wrong. The two jobs are so dissimilar as to be just barely related.

Classroom teaching is an incredibly complex task. Let's not even think about what it's like to teach kids how to take standardized tests in a public school... mostly because I don't know what that's like. The teaching I was doing was child-centered, organically connected to the children's needs and interests, with a flexible, individualized approach to curriculum that could speed up for intellectually gifted kids and slow down for the differently gifted. It was, in many ways, the classroom version of homeschooling, in which the child's need for freedom and autonomy, both physical and intellectual, were respected.

But I was doing it with a bunch of kids, and most of the time, not one of them was my own child. I was spending my days with a group of other people's children. I needed those educational theories I learned in my Master's program. I needed to refer to those books I'd collected about how to differentiate instruction. I needed the philosophical underpinning that taught me how to proceed with a child who was acting out in class. I needed to remind myself of the words of one particular professor, who had told us it was our responsibility to love every child we taught.

Teaching my kids at home, in contrast, is so smooth as to be barely perceptible as work. I don't need educational theories, because I know my kids. I don't need to remind myself that I love them. When Big is stuck on something, I don't need to refer to books that will tell me a different way to approach the concept. Because I know him well, very well indeed, I can intuitively find an approach that will work. I understand how his brain works because it's very similar to mine.

I don't need to know much of anything that I learned when I got my teaching credential, because all I really need to know is my kids. But that doesn't mean I didn't need it when I was teaching other people's kids.

And here's the thing that's been really sticking in my craw lately: it seems that some homeschooling parents believe that because they deeply understand that they don't need a credential to teach their kids, the credential must be worthless.

It's not.

Teachers really do know some things about teaching that parents who teach their kids at home don't know. Because they have to.

It's completely different work.

Monday, April 14, 2008

crayola colors, two WIPs, and two FOs

I've been knitting some crazy colors lately. These are the colors that were completely worn down in my crayon box when I was a kid: the deeply saturated colors, the colors that were between the primaries. I loved the red orange, the yellow orange, the blue green, and so on. I still do. If I were braver, I would have a crayola house. As it is, just the bathroom is as crazy as I want it to be.

But I digress. Check out these socks:

Those are Loksins! in Claudia Hand Painted Merino. The color is Grape Jelly, and these are wild. They almost glow when I wear them around outside. The color is deep and tropical, and not like anything ever seen around here. I love them.

The Uptown Boot Socks from yesterday's post are still going strong, and the color is just as strong. They are ready for me to start the heel, but it's a weird heel: I start with half the stitches (32) as usual, but then before I start the heel stitch, I decrease four stitches evenly over the width of the heel flap. What gives? I've also noticed that the instep stitches are going to stay at 32, but the sole stitches are going to be fewer... is there something about this stitch pattern I don't understand? Do I knit the pattern as written, or decide that I know better and proceed as usual?

And then there are the socks I started knitting on the train, but finally decided to rip out after I'd made it well past the heel. They were too small, and I just wasn't ready to admit it until I got almost all the way home. Those are the ones to the right of the yellow orange Uptown boot socks, in seemingly unrepeating stripes of seaweed, ocean, and mermaid. Remember Sea Green from the Crayola box? These are going to be Cat Bordhi socks, from the New Pathways book. I'm using the Sky architecture, which means I don't have to do anything differently until I get to the top of my ankle bone. I'm knitting them both at the same time because the construction is unfamiliar, and I want to make sure I make the two socks as similar as possible.

Finally, here are the socks I finished just before we left for LA. They are basic socks, K3 P1 rib, 72 stitches around on 0s. The yarn is OnLine Supersocke Beach, and I don't remember which colorway. These are quickly becoming my favorite socks. I even took the time to match the stripes, a silly trick I've never even attempted before. It was satisfying for this particular pair, but I don't know that I need to repeat the feat.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

grumperina is a genius!

Enough with intensely thinking through decisions I don't have to make for over a year, eh? Thanks for your willingness to engage in a discussion of my potential career paths and professional satisfaction, and so on. It has been very helpful, believe it or not. Here's what I'm going to do: teach the class, see how it goes, meet with some professors, apply for the program in January '09, do some research and writing about what I think might be my dissertation topic, and then, at the very last minute, decide whether to enroll for the fall of '09.

Let's talk about socks instead, shall we?

I just started these:
These are Uptown Boot Socks, by Jennifer Appleby, as found in Favorite Socks, published by Interweave in 2006.

I'm using Opal 6-ply, which is a nice fat yarn, so these are knitting up very fast. I started them just this morning, with lots of time off for changing sheets, vacuuming floors, and a quick trip to Target to buy socks for Little, who does NOT appreciate hand knit socks. This yarn comes in very large (150 gm) skeins, which I found particularly helpful when I was knitting socks for my brother, who has very, very large feet. I forget what size, but he's 6'8", and his feet are proportional to the rest of his body. I used the entire skein on his socks, so I expect I'll have plenty left over when I'm done with these. My feet are big too, but more in the normal camp.

The really amazing thing about the knitting of these socks has been learning a new technique from Grumperina, who explains oh-so-clearly how to knit cables without a cable needle. Her tutorial is here. She has also knit these socks, but she used a particularly stunning yarn. Pictures are here. This, my friends, has completely changed the way I feel about cables. No longer is this an experience to be avoided at all costs, a technique that tenses my shoulders and sets my teeth on edge. I like the look of cables, but I've always looked for patterns that require very little cabling. No more! Bring it on...

Saturday, April 12, 2008

major decision

I have an interesting opportunity. And a decision to make.

I've been asked to teach a class at the local university next fall. I'm going to leave out the details, because it's not completely definite yet, but it seems very likely that I will be teaching a very juicy course to Master's level pre-service teachers next semester. For the uninitiated, this means that I'll be teaching a small class of folks whose undergraduate degrees are mostly in the liberal arts, who have decided to become teachers.

I've also been asked to seriously consider doing an EdD. This is Education's version of a PhD, and it would mean that I would eventually be qualified to teach the next generation of public school teachers. It may not be obvious to everyone reading this post, so I will explicitly state that if I were to become a part of that system, I would spend the rest of my working life fighting hard to train the kinds of teachers who will work to create schools that meet children's needs better than they currently do. I am thinking of this work as a kind of human-rights activism.

I want to work to create schools where children's intellectual integrity is respected. This would be possible where the authority in the classroom rests in its proper place: with the teachers and children, rather than with an outside authority like a prescribed curriculum, the State, a test, or legislation like NCLB. I want to train teachers who can be flexible and creative, and use their senses and their mental abilities to really look at and respond to the children they teach.

This is the only battle, political, environmental, or otherwise, that I have any interest in fighting. This is one of the few things that could tempt me out of my current state of relative withdrawal from the world.

Here are my three quandaries:

To what degree would choosing this be taking some version of 'a good life' away from my own children? In other words, if by choosing the path of working to try to ensure a more humane schooling experience for children in public school, I would be eliminating the humanity from my own children's lives, it seems wrong-headed. Is it possible to keep my children at home as I pursue a doctorate? Clearly, I would need some outside help.

I believe this is mostly a losing battle. I believe that public school policy is not driven by what's best for the children, but rather by politics, an anti-intellectual and fear-based emotionality, and a failure of imagination caused when people believe that the only way to school is the way they were schooled. Can I do any good by fighting a losing battle? Can I make things better?

If what I really want is to make public schools better, doesn't it make more sense, as a certified and experienced teacher, for me to go into the public system myself? In other words, rather than sit in an ivory tower and tell other people how to do this very difficult work, shouldn't I just do it myself? At least then I would know that some children are getting a fair shake, at least as far as possible in the current grades-driven, test-crazed political climate. Of course, this would guarantee that I couldn't keep my kids home, so that pretty much makes it out of the question at the moment. However, eventually my children won't need to be home anymore, and at that point I could certainly get a teaching job and become an agent for change within a school.

Please discuss, either by email or in the comments. All perspectives welcome.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


I have made an astonishing discovery. I've been coddling my kids. This comes as a great surprise to me, because autonomy and independence from me has always been one of my biggest goals as a parent. I am the queen of "go get it yourself" and "look in the fridge." I am always looking for ways to get both boys to take care of it (whatever it is) themselves. I expect them to get their own snacks. I expect them to pick up their rooms and make their beds. I expect help with the dishes, laundry and garbage. I even tell them it's their responsibility to fix it, not mine, when they're bored.

It seems that I've been backsliding. I think it may have started when I became a full-time homeschooling mother. It seems that I've been cleaning up after them in subtle but myriad ways, like wiping up the peanut butter and putting the bread away after Big makes a sandwich. My rationale has been that it's enough that I'm asking him to make his own sandwich, and that he'll learn in time to clean up the sandwich zone.

This week, I've been working, with my kids running in and out and around the room I'm working in. I have needed to make this work a priority, in order to learn how do it efficiently. I am not yet able to fit it in between everything else. It has suddenly become abundantly clear that I have been spending WAY too much time doing all those little tidying up tasks that are required if one wishes to cohabitate with short people in a space not resembling a pig sty.

Except that I'm learning it's maybe not exactly required. I don't have time now to wipe up the messes and put away the Legos 4,000 times a day. So my priorities have shifted: rather than tolerating these small transient messes and cleaning them up as we go about our day together, I've begun pointing out clean tables, and asking the children to do what they can to keep them clean. I've been asking that Big pay attention to keeping the kitchen neat as he makes his snacks, and getting him to come back and take care of it right away when it isn't.

And while this seems like it might be more work, I'm finding out that it isn't. I guess they were ready to start taking more responsibility. This comes as a huge relief, because it's been hard for me to see how I was going to fit even part-time freelance work into our current structure.

Just have to start changing the current structure into something else.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

a banner day

Friends, today the gardening bucket came out. Little and I share a love of plants and sunlight and green things growing that Big One just doesn't comprehend. Little and I trimmed and carried dead stuff to the compost. We made room for small things trying to poke their way up through dead leaves and mulch. We basked in the sunlight and counted freckles. No small task.

Today at Big's French teacher's house, we met five new Tunis lambs, dark brown and tiny. We watched and waited, hoping the last ewe might give birth right there, right then.

Today it is 60 degrees, on the shady side of my house. Today we walked to Big One's music lesson. There are buds popping on the trees, everywhere and every color... purple and red, gray green and chartreuse.

And today, for the first time, my sisyphean editing project began to feel possible. I have developed a modicum of efficiency. I am learning to move on when there's a nut I can't crack, and keep going through the material. I am more than half way done.

I feel I need to explain something: I am not actually doing any editing. If I were actually honing prose, or even rewriting, I would be having fun. I really love playing with words. In fact, what I am doing is fact checking. And I will spare you the details, but these facts that I'm checking? Let's just say that it would be hard to find less interesting material. So I am finding myself spending inefficient hours learning things I just don't want to know.

But today? Today even that's okay, and today it seems like I will eventually learn to integrate this work into the rest of my life, and put it in the back seat where it belongs.

Monday, April 07, 2008


There was quite a lot of knitting time on that train, and very little time spent doing the normal things like dishes, laundry, vacuuming, cooking.... We did maintain some semblance of our usual school life, with daily sessions in the cafe car for math time, checking out the maps and how they squared with the view out the window. We told stories and read books. We visited the library in downtown LA (astonishing) and spent a few joyful hours as tourists in Chinatown.
This was blooming in a courtyard at Union Station, which was where we got back on the train. We grabbed tamales for dinner at Olvera Street, an open-air Mexican market very nearby.

Real life is different. For one thing, we can go to a grocery store right down the street and cook our own damn dinner, so things have gotten a lot cheaper very quickly. We were staying in an area of downtown LA particularly challenging for conducting any kind of practical life. Among the highlights: it took trips on two subway lines to get groceries, and I had to pay a service $2 a pound to do a load of laundry. (Trivia question: how much do you think an average load of laundry weighs? This was not a big one, just a few days' worth of relatively lightweight clothing for three people, two of them on the short side. Go ahead, guess. I was surprised.)

The other crushing reality I've had to deal with today is the return to my editing work, which is going slowly. What was supposed to be a ten-hour project, or a week's worth of work for me, is taking a lot more of my time. Fortunately this coincides with the return of spring-like weather, so the kids have been running around in the watery sunlight all day, in and out, around the house, jumping off the porch, digging in the old leaves. We did take a walk together, and read some books together.

I'm sure I'll get better at this work, and that the next project will go more smoothly. I'm sure I'll learn how to do it better. I am determined to keep at it.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


It will grow back, buddy. It will grow back.