Thinking of home schooling? Me, too.

By Allison Barrett Carter

While the rest of the parenting world thinks ahead to summer camps and languid months of their children lounging on their sofa all day, my thoughts are consumed with the month following that: September. My desk has stacks of paper with applications and printouts. It’s the season of charter school lotteries, open houses and registration forms. My anxiety level rises as I desperately look for a perfect answer for my children’s education. Then I unearth an old email about home schooling.

I do feel fortunate to have so many educational opportunities available to my children; it is certainly a privilege to have options. But somewhere between the local public school and its poor performance report, the open choice options, the four private schools we can’t afford, and the six charter schools that are an option only if we win the lottery (literally), my husband and I are lost. What is the best fit for our family?

I grew up the product of public school, as did my husband, and we did just fine. Before we had kids we never imagined we would look for alternatives to the public school down the street.

But things have changed in six years and we, like most American parents, have been bludgeoned with news that the U.S. public school system is failing.

Articles about how public school systems are especially ill-suited for boys are huge. Books about the superior education systems of other countries are bestsellers. One of the most-watched TED Talks, with more than 9 million views, is of Ken Robinson declaring that schools “kill” creativity.

Robinson says: “Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.”

Thus, my husband and I struggle. We want to be part of America’s education solution, but not at the cost of our children’s futures.

So when an email from my friend Gina, who home-schools her three children, hit my inbox, I was intrigued.

“There is a misconception of how much time it takes to educate your children at home,” she writes. “I enjoy that we can really focus on each child’s interest. Each of my children has a separate curriculum that highlights areas where they excel as well as areas where they need more focus. Then, we have certain activities that they always do together.”

Home schooling takes the old axiom “the best teacher is no substitute for what you do at home” and boldly cuts out the middle man. Perhaps it is the solution for our family?

After reading Gina’s email, I became aware that more parents in my social circle are taking this route. I have been privy to numerous playground talks about Classical Conversations — a Christian-based home schooling support network — and my Facebook feed shows many friends teaching at home.

So I did some research. I learned that I live in a state where more children are home-schooled than enrolled in private school.

The New York Times has reported that home schooling is on the rise across the nation, regardless of race or religion. In the 2011-2012 school year, according to the Times’ reporting, nearly 1.8 million children were home-schooled in the United States, compared with 1.5 million five years earlier.

These statistics surprised me, but I guess they shouldn’t. The Internet has opened many alternative educational opportunities; it was only a matter of time before individualized at-home learning reaped the benefits. America is a nation of “do-it-yourselfers” full of grit and determination, so why should we not DIY what matters most: our children’s education.

The Internet offers a potential home schooling parent free step-by-step how-to’s, lesson plans, books, activities, proposed daily schedules, and active communities for support and connection. In my immediate area, I have found multiple Facebook groups of home schooling parents who meet regularly for lessons and field trips.

Add to this the popular lifestyle blogs, such as the Handmade Home, that dedicate entire series to their home schooling tips, and I can’t help but romanticize the idea. It seems like a simpler, slower way of life. No more school buses, 6 p.m. homework battles or packing lunchboxes at 7 a.m. I can change my office into a classroom and our home will ooze family time and learning.

With the help of the Internet, home schooling has become normalized. In fact, with all my clicking and reading, I find myself excited about it.

I am an educated woman with a degree from a top public university; why wouldn’t I be able to teach my own children elementary school topics? After all, the media keeps telling me that many teachers may not be qualified. Maybe I am? With the Internet as my partner, I feel strong.

Home schooling isn’t right for everyone. It is a commitment and it requires an intense dedication from the entire family. My husband and I are aware that a making a decision to become our children’s primary educators is a big one. And like all things in education, there are pitfalls to the decision.

But as families like mine tire of waiting for our country to fix public education, as the Internet puts resources at our fingertips, as it becomes normalized and even romanticized, home schooling is a serious contender for our educational choice this fall. I might just decide to not worry about my lottery chances and DIY it.

Allison Barrett Carter is a freelance writer in North Carolina. She blogs at allisonbarrettcarter.com.

 

Top 10 skills middle school students need to thrive, and how parents can help

In elementary school, I was too shy to address my teachers by name. I would hover nearby, hoping they would realize I had a question. I also was the new girl, and the existing cliques seemed impenetrable. To make matters worse, I was a late reader and had difficulty articulating half the alphabet. Family members would euphemistically say I was just “slow out of the gate.” I had my work cut out for me.

By middle school, I was ready to throw myself into the mix. It wasn’t always pretty. I got tossed out of classes for giggling uncontrollably. I navigated earning my first “D” and getting demoted in math. I had a knack for choosing overly dramatic and bossy friends, and I accidentally dyed my hair brassy orange. I agreed to go to a school dance with a boy, only to panic when I realized this involved actually going to a dance with a boy. I got busted for passing notes in class and for finishing overdue homework in the girls’ bathroom.

On the plus side, I figured out how to connect with teachers, and I learned I could solve math problems when I made an effort. I discovered that books kindled my imagination and provided a mental escape. Sports played a useful role too, allowing me to burn off excess energy and improve my focus. I shifted social groups more than a few times. Overall, it was the typical junior high experience, one I relive frequently as a middle school counselor and as the parent of kids in the seventh and eighth grade. Long before social emotional learning became a buzzword in education circles, I was stumbling along, acquiring self-awareness and problem-solving skills.

There is no manual to develop “soft” skills like perseverance and resilience. Just as I did, most kids learn through trial and error. As parents, our quest to protect our children can be at odds with their personal growth. It can feel counter-intuitive, but we mainly need to take a step back. I have come to believe that certain social-emotional skills are particularly useful as kids navigate middle school and beyond. Here are my top 10 skills, and ways parents can help without getting in the way.

Top 10 Social Emotional Skills For Middle School Students

1. Make good friend choices. This typically comes on the heels of making some questionable choices. Kids figure out quickly which friends instill a sense of belonging and which ones make them feel uncomfortable. It can be helpful to ask your children these questions: Do you have fun and laugh with this person? Can you be yourself? Is there trust and empathy? Common interests are a bonus.

2. Work in teams and negotiate conflict. I don’t think many students get through middle school without feeling like they had to carry the load on at least one group project. Maybe they didn’t delegate and divide the work effectively at the onset. Perhaps they chose to take ownership to avoid a poor grade. Help them understand what happened and consider what they might have done differently.

3. Manage a student-teacher mismatch. Unless there is abuse or discrimination, don’t bail them out by asking for a teacher change. Tell them they still can learn from a teacher they don’t like. Let them know it’s a chance to practice working with someone they find difficult. Remind them that if they can manage the situation, they won’t feel powerless or helpless the next time. Focus on concrete barriers to success in the class, not the interpersonal conflict. Is it miscommunication? Study skills?

4. Create organization and homework systems. Make sure they are the architects of this process. Encourage them to come up with solution-oriented plans and tweak them as needed. Do they need to use their planner? Create a checklist? Their motivation will come from ownership. If they say they don’t care, remind them that they don’t have to be invested in a particular outcome in order to change their behavior. People who hate exercise can still choose to lift weights.

5. Monitor and take responsibility for grades. If you care more than they do about their grades, why should they worry? Let them monitor their own grades, and if they don’t do well, don’t step in to advocate for assignment extensions or grade changes. Let them carry the burden and experience the connection between preparation, organization and grades.  Conversely, if they are perfectionists, they will learn they can survive and manage the disappointment of a low grade.

6. Learn to self-advocate. By middle school, they should be learning how to ask teachers for help or clarification. This may be in person or through email. When students bond with teachers, they connect more intimately with the material too. Unless there is no other option, try not to reach out on their behalf.

7. Self-regulate emotions. Children often need assistance labeling strong emotions before they can regulate them. Help your kids identify any physical symptoms that accompany their stressors. This may help them know when to take a breath or hit the “pause” button before reacting. In real time, point out when they handle an emotional situation well. Discuss the strategy they implemented—maybe they took a break or listened to music. Also, help them make connections between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Are they stuck in all-or-nothing thinking? Are they consistently self-critical?

8. Cultivate passions and recognize limitations. When your children are fired up about something, run with it and encourage exploration. Seize the opportunity to help them go deep. Get books, go to museums and be supportive even if the subject does not excite you. In the process, you will help them figure out what drives them. On the other hand, it is okay if they struggle in a specific area. That too is useful information. No one needs to be good at everything.

9. Make responsible, safe and ethical choices. Teach them to respect their bodies, and to make safe and healthy decisions. It is equally important to talk about how to avoid putting others at risk. Have open conversations and discuss plans for different scenarios they may encounter. Try not to be overly reactive if they ask shocking or distressing questions. Keep the lines of communication open.

 10. Create and innovate. Our changing world needs imaginative creators and divergent thinkers. It also can build confidence to think independently and outside the box. As your kids do their homework, read required texts and take standardized tests, remind them that these benchmarks are not the only ways to measure success. Encourage them to make connections across material from different classes, and to build, write, invent and experiment.

Phyllis L. Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor and school counselor in Bethesda. She tweets @pfagell.

What happened when our family created a new holiday (hint: you might want to try the same)

“Let’s make a new holiday,” my older son said one night while we were finishing up with a bath.

“What kind of holiday?” I asked. I was skeptical. Between birthdays and anniversaries, hallmark holidays and days-off-school holidays, candy-laden holidays and gift-giving holidays, our calendar is already pretty saturated with celebrations. Frankly, after a while, they all seem to blend into a blur of sugar-glazed parties to cover up all the inherent stress and chores, unrealistic expectations and shortcomings.

“We’ll draw names and exchange small gifts with each other, spend time together doing something fun,” my son suggested. “And then just continue on with our normal day.”

I stared at him. “Huh?”

“Just small little gifts…like maybe a book or something?”

I stared at him some more. He dried off, put on his pajamas, and wroteGiving Day in big letters on the calendar.

Over the next few days, we talked about what Giving Day would look like. We would draw names and give a small gift, either inexpensive or handmade. We would do something together as family. And we would volunteer or give to someone outside of the family. Giving Day would be about giving, not about getting. As an aspiring minimalist, the last thing I want is more “stuff” in the house, much less another chore on our already-too-long list of obligations. And I desperately wanted to prevent Giving Day from turning into a Buy-Me-Something Day.

Our first Giving Day was about six months ago, and true to form, not once has our new holiday gone according to plan. In fact, in many ways, Giving Day has been a comedy of errors. There were loud grumbles and fights when the boys delivered their homemade cookies to the neighbors in the rain. Our plans to volunteer as a family were derailed when our water heater broke and my husband had to stay home to wait for the plumber. My younger son cried when his brother’s hand-drawn picture wasn’t what he hoped it would be. And when we tried to pay for someone’s meal anonymously, the restaurant blew our cover and the whole thing was more than a little awkward.

In the past few months, Giving Day has slipped off its monthly place on the calendar and become more of a whenever-we-get-our-act-together holiday. It seems that I’m not only failing at the compulsory holidays anymore; now I’m failing at our own made-up holidays too.

In an odd way, however, our Giving Day debacles and snafus seem rather fitting and appropriate. Like most holidays, the reality of Giving Day rarely lives up to the idea of it, but in many ways it represents everything I want to teach my children about holidays, generosity, and family.

Giving Day is flawed, messy, and imperfect. We bump elbows and get on each other’s nerves, but for a day, we show up, bring our whole selves, and spend time together. We fall short of our expectations, but we try again next time. We give awkwardly, but enthusiastically and with a full heart. After all, isn’t that what the holidays are about?

A lawyer-turned-writer, Christine is the author of Open Boxes: the gifts of living a full and connected life. She writes at www.christineorgan.com and you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

A DIY Project That Makes A Perfect Gift!

If you are like me, then you enjoy giving gifts more than you like receiving them.

I always think of fun cute things to create for gifts.  Last week was one of my girlfriend’s birthday!  I took three photos from Instagram and had the Fed-Ex Office store next to Starbucks in River Park print them out using a laser printer and the thinnest paper they have (they one have one thickness).  I then went to Michaels right across the parking lot and found everything else I needed.  The Mod Podge, sponge brushes, the transferring gel and even the wood to transfer the pictures to (I didn’t have to go to Home Depot)!

Continue reading