Category Archives: Homeschooling

Homeschooling has offered me a unique glimpse into the connection between my stories and those of my kids.

Checking in on the Homeschool: Tenth Grade


You know things are either going well or extremely badly when a month goes by and no blogging happens. While we have been busy, it has been a good sort of busy for the most part. Here’s a snapshot of tenth grade in the homeschool:

  • Shakespeare. We are pursuing a year of studying the Bard at home. So far, we have read Twelfth Night. Next up: As You Like It.
  • U.S. History. We are following a plan I blogged about before. Olivia has chosen to make weekly videos exploring one of the topics we touched on during the week. Here’s an example.
  • Precalculus. Olivia is soldiering along in an in-person class with a local instructor. Math will never be her favorite, but she is reaching out for help as needed. So far, so good.
  • German. Olivia is taking an online course in German 1 with the Well Trained Mind Academy (WTMA). She already had German last year, but she’s keeping up her practice with the hope of enrolling in a community college German 2 class in the spring.
  • Chemistry. Another online course through WTMA.
  • AP Computer Science. It’s a good thing Olivia has friends who code, because I will never be able to help her with this class. This one is through Pennsylvania Homeschoolers.
  • Co-op classes. Olivia is taking Photography, Shakespeare Uncovered, and The Power of Myth at our local co-op.

Of all the things we’re doing, I feel the best about the way we’ve approached Shakespeare so far this year. With the help of the Folger Library’s Shakespeare Set Free, we have read the play Twelfth Night in a way that doesn’t allow for drudgery to set in. Buy the guide if you’d like detailed plans, but here are some ways you can get Shakespeare “on its feet” and alive in your house today:

  1. Read the scenes aloud, many times. Try reading one line per person, switching back and forth. Read in a strange voice or portraying a certain emotion while you read. Read chorally, all together. However you do it, let the language come alive by reading the scenes over and over. There isn’t much need to dig into difficult language, but you can if you’d like. I do, but that’s because I can’t stand missing a joke. Olivia does it less.
  2. Act out the scene, complete with stage directions. Don’t settle for standing up and gesturing a bit as you read with feeling. Decide what the props are, and place them in the right spot. Figure out how the characters will enter. Print out a copy of the scene and make notes about how characters will move in each part of the scene. Get suggestions from your onlookers (younger kids make great directors, you know). Try the scene a couple of different ways to see which way you like best. Exaggerate the comedy and the emotion to see how it impacts the scene.
  3. Try out some modern-day skits. Read over a scene and try to find some modern-day equivalents to act out as skits. We played with the relationships of the characters by having Maria and Malvolio go to the food market; Orsino and Viola taking refuge from a rainstorm in a small cave; and Toby coming in late to church after a night of drinking, only to find Malvolio is the preacher. (Ideas from Shakespeare Set Free). Kids will demonstrate a deeper understanding of the conflicts happening in the Shakespeare scenes with some role play in advance of or after a reading.
  4. Cut a scene down. I was surprised how hard it was to take a scene and cut it down to a more manageable size. Deep understanding of the lines and their importance is necessary as you decide which lines are superfluous or confusing in the modern day. Print out a scene and grab your red pens!
  5. Profile a character. Olivia had fun making a poster for Viola, complete with her picture and details about her likes/dislikes, personality, and ambitions. When profiling a character, make a list of imagined favorite bands, songs, movies, books, and ice cream flavors. It’s fun to go beyond the book to give these characters a more modern feel based on what we know about them from the story.
  6. Do the fight scenes. Find a book on stage combat as a resource and teach your kids some fighting skills. Take a fight scene from the play and plan it out, blow by blow. Use your younger sibling directors to give you some guidance to know what looks good and what looks fake. When our local Shakespeare actors rehearse before a show, they do a “fight call” where actors must run the fight scenes in slow motion before they run them at full speed. Try this out. It’s fun to run a fight in slow motion. Make sure to get your camera ready to record it!
  7. Compare scenes from filmed versions. We had a blast planning the scene where Malvolio finds a letter supposedly from his mistress Olivia. We acted it out, planning where Sir Toby and his crew would hide, how Malvolio would react when he saw the letter, and so on, through the whole scene. Then we pulled up two different versions of the scene from movies and made notes about how each production interpreted the scene. We noted what worked well and what fell flat. We felt like theater critics. Fun!

I hope these ideas will spark an interest in your house to get a Shakespeare play “on its feet.” Shakespeare isn’t intended to be dry and boring. When you find interest flagging, it’s time to get up and plan a scene!

Comprehensible Input: Language Tips

Homeschooling and

I’ve been thinking about foreign language a lot recently. My daughter is currently attending a foreign language immersion camp in Minnesota. She has a little bit of German and was nervous about going to a camp where the adults were going to speak to her only in German. All. Day. Long. She’s doing okay, if the pictures are any indication:

Seriously. Who gets camp food like this?

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I’m interested in the way the camp engages kids with little language experience. I suspect there is a lot of Comprehensible Input going on. Stephen Krashen first told us about Comprehensible Input (CI) in the 80’s. Giving a language student access to new structures, words, and language patterns that she is ready to acquire and make her own; that’s Comprehensible Input in a nutshell. I imagine Olivia gets to see someone at camp hold up an apple and say Apfel; I do not imagine someone holding up an apple and saying the German equivalent of “An apple a day keeps the doctor away unless you happen to be allergic to apples.” Comprehensible input gives students just enough new wording to be understandable.

I’ve blogged about using storytelling as a way to give students comprehensible input. We use words, movements, and visuals to communicate a story that sticks in students’ minds. Teachers limit the amount of vocabulary and the grammar structures used in the story to allow students to understand it. I’m amazed at the new stories my beginning French students are able to create after a short interaction with structures I use in my stories.

Comprehensible input comes somewhat naturally to homeschoolers. Since our kids will show us lack of comprehension in a myriad of ways – shouting, glazed eyes, refusal to do work – we parents have learn early on to be adept at reading these cues and adjusting our input. If we don’t, a toxic learning environment arises.

Still, we homeschoolers do sometimes lose patience with the process. Why can’t my son grasp these multiplication facts? We’ve been working on them for a billion years! We can benefit from incorporating some tenets of the Comprehensible Input methodology. [Source: What Is Comprehensible Input?]

To make sure new language (or new content of any kind) is comprehensible, we can:

  • Provide the back story. If a child is learning about the Constitutional Convention, it’s helpful to call up as much relevant background knowledge as possible. Remember when we took that trip to Philadelphia to see Independence Hall? Do you remember how small the room where everyone met was? And no air conditioning! Wow, what a sweat fest that must have been. Giving your child a hook to hang new information on will give him not only a stronger recall but also a sense of wonder as he realizes how interconnected everything is. Those were my best moments in school. 😉
  •  Connect with a student’s experience. Our American history study will center around Hamilton the musical because my daughter has seen the show and is fascinated with the music and the world of Alexander Hamilton. When new content is introduced in the context of your child’s culture, that content pops with vivid life in her imagination.
  • Use lots of language and visuals, Now, spewing lots of language at a foreign language student isn’t helpful, but repeating the word girl many times in the context of a story about a girl who wants to buy an elephant (along with pictures of said girl hopping on airplanes to fly to different cities in search of an elephant) gives students a chance to make a connection between the visual and the aural input. Showing one picture and saying one sentence isn’t enough. Similarly, watching one video about the Civil War isn’t enough to help your child grasp the era about which he is learning. Delve deep into books, videos, websites, and image libraries to help him live with the material for a while. Then he’ll be able to write about it.
  • Worry more about accuracy of content than accuracy of expression. Brave Writer teaches this lesson, too: The quirky insights a child expresses in writing matters much more than her ability to correctly punctuate a sentence. In foreign language, if a student can tell me a story about a gorilla who gives his banana to a mouse, I’m riveted despite the plethora of errors that accompany this tale. As homeschoolers, we can value the ideas above all else. Accuracy of expression will come with practice.
  • Involve students, ask questions, and allow students to express their ideas. Gone are the days where students are expected to be quiet receptacles for information. [Well, those days should be gone by now. Are they gone by now?] Telling a story that features the students and their interests – There was a boy named John. He loved skateboarding, but he was tired of skateboarding in Baltimore. He wanted to skateboard somewhere else! – pulls students in and helps them feel part of what is happening in the classroom. Asking them to contribute their own ideas – Where did he want to skateboard? In Rome, you say? Yes! He wanted to skateboard in Rome.  – enhances their engagement even more. At home, we can invite our kids to have a say in everything. We can have conversations about movies, asking our kids who they would cast in the sequel and what the plot line would be. We can invite them to create their own version of the sequel by writing scripts and making a puppet show. The possibilities to allow our kids to participate in the learning process as equal partners are endless.

Are you ready to give your kids some Comprehensible Input? Just remember: it takes forever for kids to acquire new skills. Well, it feels like forever to us parents, but it’s really just a small dot on the timeline of our kids’ lives. Be patient. Take your input down to where the kids are and give them just enough to get their brains whirring with ideas. Then let those ideas guide you as you figure out what comes next.

Ten Apples up on Top: My Homeschool Journey

Okay. I can do this. I was a teacher, after all. I can homeschool my son. I just need a timer, a whiteboard, perhaps a bulletin board. Oh and a desk. And a planner, definitely can’t function without a planner. Third grade. All right, let’s go. 

One mom, one teacher, one kid. One apple. No problem.

Ah, first homeschooling year. How I weep when I think back on you. My schooly approach was so me. Schedules, timers, and worksheets, oh my. I thought I could knock out school in a couple of hours and have more time to play with my kid. Real World Alert: Ten math problems can take ten hours to complete when a kid isn’t interested in doing them. Tears and tedium. That was the theme of year one.

If one apple isn't working well, why not try two?
If one apple isn’t working well, why not try two?

The next year, I found my true calling in life: Researcher and Implementer of Curriculum. I read books, spent money on curriculum, tried more books, more curriculum, repeat, repeat, repeat. If I happened upon a forum post that included something I wasn’t already doing, I felt a burning need to try it. Now, keep in mind, when I say try something new, I don’t mean substitute the old with the new. I mean add on the new on top of the old. I think my stack of curriculum choices was taller than my fourth grader.

Are your apples cooler than my apples?
Are your apples cooler than my apples?

Oh, hi, Mrs. Jones. Fellow homeschooler. The one with all the cool bookshelves and art station and observatory and backyard wetlands and gymnasium. In your house. My little homeschool world looked less shiny compared to those homeschoolers who seemed to have it all together, all the time. I knew I could never win. I was working so hard to provide an education for my kids (younger sister had entered the mix by this time), and then I would meet someone doing what I was doing, but for seven children. In her spare time after her full-time job. Seriously.

So many of the early years of homeschooling were filled with my struggle to overcome anxiety and a sense of inadequacy. I hadn’t been trained to homeschool, as it turns out. Being a teacher helped not at all. I felt stressed and tired all the time, and I had just two kids and no job.

I had learned some tricks, though. Tears flowed a lot less often. I discovered ways that my kids liked to learn and really didn’t like to learn. Gone were the timers, the long math sessions, and many curriculum choices.

I was finally getting into a groove. I aspired to be more like the mothers who approached homeschooling with a relaxed, flexible attitude. I started to view other homeschoolers not as rivals, but rather as wonderful mentors.

Balancing apples while skipping rope is a lot like teaching math while folding laundry.
Balancing apples while skipping rope is a lot like teaching math while folding laundry.

Then, since the kids seemed a bit lonely, I decided to join a co-op. Cue Mrs. Jones’ friends…

Sure. I’m teaching my fifth grader calculus, and my first grader decided to learn to write using a quill and ink. She only writes in cursive, of course.

Actually, co-op was wonderful for our family in many ways. I got access to a wide variety of homeschool styles and finally had the chance to mentor others, for a change. I noticed how many first-year homeschool moms were terrified and convinced they couldn’t do it. Since I had begun my homeschool journey from a “let’s do all the things all the time” perspective, I usually wasn’t the best person to talk to a new homeschooler on the edge of losing it. But I could point them in the direction of some excellent laid-back moms!

We're living a crazy life: with the kids 24/7, chauffeuring across the state for music/art/drama, and learning to love a house that never gets clean. But we're in it together, so it's okay!
We’re living a crazy life: with the kids 24/7, chauffeuring across the state for music/art/drama, and learning to love a house that never gets clean. But we’re in it together, so it’s okay!

Our homeschool community is a busy place. We come in all sizes: unschoolers, classical educators, “let’s not do math this year” types, and everything in between. In my area, though, one thing we homeschoolers have in common is a life of busyness. We’re similar to our schooling friends in that way: lacrosse, drama, music, art, Krav Maga, and field trips fill our days. We never knew a car could keep driving with 200,000 miles on it, but we’re determined not to miss anything. We’re chasing that misguided idea that the perfect opportunity for our kids is the one we haven’t done yet:

In the cart! Everyone! Quick! All the life-fulfilling activities are just ahead!
In the cart! Everyone! Quick! All the life-fulfilling activities are just ahead!

Eventually, we each end up here:


Life causes us to stop and regroup. Perhaps it’s the winter storm that keeps us housebound for a week, or the surgery that means no one gets driven to band practice, or maybe it’s the end of a marriage that brings activity to a halt. It’s hard to be grateful for these moments of boredom, pain, and anguish, but I can find some gratitude in the enforced pauses. After a Kablam! happens in my life, I’m not quick to pile the apples back on top of my head quite so quickly as before. I’ve finally found a way to let some opportunities pass me by, to evaluate carefully whether or not it’s worth taking that class, traveling to that tournament, or participating in that concert.

And although my life is still one of busyness, I take comfort in my homeschool community.


We’re all balancing a tall apple pile. Mother, teacher, wife, friend, coach, nurse – we homeschool moms do so much. It’s nice to know I have my posse of homeschool moms to support me in this wacky life choice.

Here’s to all the apple balancers everywhere. What fun! We will not let them fall. [Although when they do, we’ll be there to help you pick them up and make a nice pie with them.]

Planning Future Stories: Summer Edition!

Phew! It’s been a while since my last post, I know. The end of the school year seems to hit like a ton of bricks every year. Recitals, concerts, final exams, and the end of… things. It consumes me and exhausts me. I’m on track again, though, having attended a wonderfully restorative retreat with my fellow Brave Writer staffers, and I am now in possession of that elusive free time that comes with the end of schooly things.

For me, free time is planning time. I love to plan. I’ve shared some of my initial thoughts about my two big planning projects, a Shakespeare and U.S. history class for next year. I imagined a free form movement through the year, hitting upon a topic and exploring it in the way that felt best at that moment. My lovely student has informed me, however, that she really prefers having a plan to follow. Ah, she is my daughter in that way. I struggle to be unschoolish in my approach, but I do like having the route established ahead of time. So, it seems, does Olivia. Okay, time to plan!

I have finished working though my ideas for the first quarter of Shakespeare and the entire school year for U.S. History. I would like to say I created the timeline for our studies on my own, but in fact, I borrowed a ton from resources that exist. I not only don’t believe in reinventing the wheel, I also can’t reinvent the wheel. My inner inventor has gone quiet. Ha.

So, what’s happening?

I. Shakespeare. Twelfth Night. We’re going to start with this comedy because Olivia and I both like it, and there is a wonderful group of lessons created by the Folger Shakespeare people around it.

shakespeare set free

Yes, I’m speaking once again of the Shakespeare Set Free series. I so wish I had a group of Shakespeare nuts to do this book properly, but Olivia and I are going to give it a go on our own. The series helps teachers guide students into Shakespeare primarily through performance rather than text-based study. We look closely at text, of course, but the main idea is that Shakespeare is best done aloud. There are lessons on movement, blocking, role playing, sword fighting, and sight gags. There are also lessons on character analysis, close reading, and explicating a scene.

There is  a log to be kept with reflections on the play. I love the prompts because they help the reader connect with the play. One example: Find and comment on four lines from the scenes you’ve read so far: a line that has beauty in it, a line with a good joke, a line that sounds modern, a line that appeals to you for any reason.  We’ll work on Shakespeare three times a week, finishing the play in nine weeks, then we’ll evaluate how it went.

II. U.S. History. I struggled a bit here at first, since I have a lot of websites, videos, and books, but no clear idea how to pull them into a plan. Then I happened upon Karen’s blog post of an American History plan (find it here).  She did the thing I was loathe to do, which was to create a plan with textbook readings, supplementary book readings, videos, and examination of primary source documents. While the textbook is a hefty beast (something I was trying to avoid), I decided to go with it anyway. We’ll see if Olivia balks. If so, we can always ditch the textbook and pursue other sources for reading.

I added five things into Karen’s plan:

  1. Crash Course Videos. This was easy to do, since the videos follow a distinct timeline. Olivia finds them funny, and I know she’ll enjoy watching and perhaps making some of her own.
  2. Field Trips. Once I saw when we would hit Jamestown, the American Revolution, and the Civil War, I went ahead and put a few trips on the calendar. I’ll aim for Williamsburg in October, Boston over Thanksgiving, Ft. McHenry in January and Gettysburg in March.
  3. Help for High School.  I’ve talked about this one before, but we’re going to give it another go this year, trying to put a bit of a historical twist on the writing prompts. This Brave Writer product helps kids get in touch with their inner thought process, discovering what they think about controversial topics and formulating their ideas in the traditional essay format. HelpforHighSchool_largeFor example, while kids are asked to choose a controversial topic such as gun rights, abortion, body piercing, etc., I have substituted in history topics that Olivia will be able to pick a side on after some study, such as war, Columbus, immigration, and colonization.
  4. Alternative Assessments. One thing I find really kills history and science study is an over-reliance on answering comprehension questions as a way to demonstrate understanding. I wanted Olivia to have some options here. She already has a blog idea in mind that she will use to recount some of the information she’s learning. I borrowed these two ideas (1 & 2) for a supplemental list of ways to demonstrate learning. I’ll leave it up to her to pick what she wants to do each week, though I suspect the video-making ideas will have a big appeal. Olivia is a video maker by nature.
  5. Musicals. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Musicals drive interest-led learning around here. In addition to our beloved Hamilton, we’ll include viewings of 1776; Bloody, Bloody, Andrew Jackson; and Little Women, the Musical.

This planner is signing off now! Happy summer to you.

Socialization, Homeschool Style

This is the story of a homeschooled child. A socialized, well-adjusted homeschooled child. We don’t get many comments along the lines of “But how does she get socialization if she doesn’t go to school?” but I know that’s a common question among those who don’t really get how homeschooling works.

[Perhaps the question we do get is indicative of the test-obsessed mentality of some schooling parents. I don’t get this question from everyone. Most of my schooling friends don’t worry about this question. I have wise and loving friends. Our most frequent question is: “Does she take the tests?” When I tell folks that testing isn’t required for homeschoolers, a perplexed look followed by “But how do you ensure she’s learned the stuff she needs to know?” is how the conversation ends. Sad to think that some folks think tests are needed to show what kids know. Help me reeducate the world, won’t you?]

So, my daughter just participated in that oh-so-important high school ritual, the prom. Well, it’s a homeschool prom so it isn’t called the prom (it’s the Gala), and it differs from prom in a lot of ways. Here she is in her get up. Doesn’t she clean up nicely?


I find at this time of year that I really like homeschooling and homeschoolers. Having attended some of these events in the past, here are some observations I have about them:

  • Dancing is more like the moving of bodies to music and less like the having of sexual relations with clothes on at a homeschool event. [Don’t ask me about the one time I chaperoned a middle school dance in my early teaching days. I still have scars.] People dance in all sorts of ways, too. Modern dance, Pride & Prejudice type dance, ballroom dance.  Homeschool kids tend to just do their thing.
  • Clothing ranges from nice church clothes to fancy gowns and tuxes. It’s okay to wear what you want. No need for short gowns only at one dance and long gowns only at another. It’s free form. I’m not sure why there isn’t more peer pressure with these homeschool kids, a need to conform to a standard set by the peer group. I suspect it’s because many of the homeschool kids dropped out of school because they wouldn’t bow to any kind of pressure, positive or negative. While that can be a problem when a kid refuses to learn algebra, it does have its perks. Homeschool kids march to their own drummers a lot of the time.
  • Kids do like prom. A lot of them do. Some adults think prom was the most important event in high school (really?) and some thought it was a waste of a good evening. Even when there isn’t pressure to go to prom for prom’s sake, kids still do like to get dressed up and go to a fancy event. Even homeschool kids.

So while I’m grateful that promposals aren’t a thing in the homeschool world (Ack! The pressure!), I’m glad our kids have a chance to engage in typical teen social activities on their terms. The adults who organize these events have my undying gratitude. And a big shout out of thanks to all the kids who make my kid feel included. Homeschoolers do know how to socialize. They just do it homeschool style.

Telling Shakespeare’s Story: How to Avoid the Boring

As I may have mentioned before, my daughter (and I, let’s be honest) is a Shakespeare groupie. She has requested to do a deep dive into Shakespeare next year. Overachiever that she is (love her, *kiss kiss*), she wanted to read all the plays. I think I’ve talked her down off that particular ledge. We’ll read as many plays as we can comfortably manage, though.

Here’s the big question: How does a homeschooler do Shakespeare in a way that avoids the dreaded Boring Shakespeare Experience? That was my Shakespeare experience, anyway. I recall reading Macbeth twice (I switched classes mid-year, so I got to do Macbeth twice). I recall reading it. I recall analyzing the theme of blood in the play. I recall watching this twice (I think I still have scars from that viewing experience.  Lady Macbeth is quite the sex pot in this production). But I recall no warm fuzzy memories of my Shakespeare study.

Shakespeare can be boring. He tends to drag. Hamlet is a yawny experience, even when seen live (I can testify to that). So why does my daughter love it?

Well, she acted it first. Her primary experience with Shakespeare comes from being part of a troupe. Here’s a shot of the outdoor venue where the high school kids get their Shakespeare on:


It’s delightful. Olivia is looking forward to doing a tragedy or comedy this summer. She loves the acting. She loves the mentors. She loves the kids. Acting Shakespeare is a great gateway to the plays.

The Folger Shakespeare Library agrees. We plan to use their resources that help kids learn Shakespeare by acting. We’ll either use these lessons at home or through our local co-op Shakespeare class happening this year. Who knew there was an engaging way to do Shakespeare? Honestly, I never remember acting out a single scene in high school. I might have enjoyed the experience more if I had been given a scene, told to cut it down to X number of lines, and then been charged to act it out in front of the class. That’s the Folger approach.

Shakespeare Set Free #3

Okay, so we’ll act out some Shakespeare, both in a troupe and through a co-op class. We’ll also act out some of the funny Shakespeare (if we have time) in that class. Olivia and I love The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Abridged. This comic mash up brings all of Shakespeare’s plays into one hilarious production. See it if you can. We just saw this company’s latest production at the Folger, William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play. Hilarious. I think Shakespeare spoofs add a modern dimension to the plays that makes a reading of the actual plays all the richer.

And let’s not forget musicals, of course. I’ve talked about Olivia’s passion for musicals before. Something Rotten is touring this year. We’re going to see it. Here’s the synopsis from our local theater:

Something Rotten! is Broadway’s big, fat hit! (New York Post). Set in 1595, this hilarious smash tells the story of Nick and Nigel Bottom, two brothers who are desperate to write a hit play. When a local soothsayer foretells that the future of theatre involves singing, dancing and acting at the same time, Nick and Nigel set out to write the world’s very first MUSICAL! With its heart on its ruffled sleeve and sequins in its soul, Something Rotten! is The Producers +The Book of Mormon x The Drowsy Chaperone. Squared! (New York Magazine).

What’s not to love about that? We watched a few of the songs online and we know we’re going to love every Elizabethan moment of that show.  As I said, watching the spoofing Shakespeare makes the actual reading of the plays all the merrier.

Acting, reading, and watching. That’s our Shakespeare plan. Oh, and we plan to round things off with a Brave Writer class or two, of course. Hamlet is being offered this spring. I believe Macbeth is on tap for next spring. We just caught Chesapeake Shakespeare’s production of Macbeth, so I think we’ll enjoy another visit with the Thane of Cawdor next year.

Do you have any plans to interact with the Bard? How do you plan to spice things up to avoid the Boring Shakespeare Experience? I did a Periscope on this topic, too. Here it is!

“No, Mom! I do it!”

That quote was one of my son’s favorite phrases when he was a toddler. He usually wanted me to stop helping him get dressed, climb a ladder, or get a game out. He sometimes wanted me to stop singing along to a song on the radio; in that case, the phrase would change to “No, Mom! She do it!” He never appreciated my dulcet tones, I guess. 😉

I have noticed over the years that I do have a tendency to insert myself too much into my kids’ lives. I don’t have much patience, so it’s difficult for me to watch young fingers struggle to cut out a shape without just grabbing the scissors and saying, “Here. Let me help.” Some parents are great at letting their kids figure it out, watching kids struggle in the kitchen as they place the flour in the measuring cup, spilling half of it on the floor in the process. I aim to be more like those moms all the time. Sometimes, I even succeed.

This idea of Parental Help came home to me after a weekend spent at a Destination Imagination competition. Here’s a lovely photo of my daughter’s improvisation team. I’m their Team Manager.


Destination Imagination has a strict No Interference policy for teams. Here’s an example of how the No Interference rule woks (from the New Hampshire DI site):

If someone not on the team, including a Team Manager, builds or creates an item using the team’s idea, they may not use that item. The team must start over and build it themselves in their own way. If someone not on the team, such as a Team Manager or a parent, tells the team how to do something, whether they are building something new or just practicing their Presentation, the team must politely tell that person to let them do it themselves.

I’m sure you can imagine how hard it is for adults to zip their lips and let the kids find a solution for themselves. I’ve heard of Team Managers who had to take a walk around the building to avoid telling a team that a particular method of assembling expensive materials was not only not going to work, it was going to destroy said expensive materials. No Interference.

What if we parents exhibited a bit more of the “zip your lip” approach to our kids and their projects? What would the school’s science fair look like if parents really didn’t do 95% of the projects for kids? What would the robotics competition look like if there were no “Daddybots” (the ones built by dads on a team of young beginners who obviously lack the skills necessary to create these work-of-art machines)? What would happen if we – gasp – let our kids make their own costumes for History Day?

I suspect that if we embraced the No Interference rule with our kids, there would be a lot of train wreck projects showing up in schools. Ha. But I think if we became Lip Zippers, we would go a long way towards minimizing that achievement gap everyone’s always so worried about. Our kids don’t need more papers and tougher tests. They need to inhabit the world of “Let’s figure this thing out.”

Making Points: How to Organize Facts

This week, I’ve been thinking about the Internet a lot, and not in a “Gosh, how I love the Internet” kind of way. Ha. Quite the opposite. I have a group of kids who need to find factual information to support their positions in a writing class. Have any of you adults tried to accomplish this task lately? If not, I invite you to do the following. It will give you a new understanding of the difficulties your teens face in this age of too much information.

  1. Pick a controversial topic. Gun control, abortion, vaccination. That kind of thing.
  2. Pick a side.
  3. Find information from experts to support your side. Research studies, surveys, expert testimony. You get the idea.
  4. Are you ready to scream yet? If not, try to find supporting texts for the other side of the argument. I’m sure you’re screaming by now.

It is a labor intensive process to find support material that would pass muster in an academic essay. It is never a half hour session of Internet searching to find what you need. Set aside hours. Pain. So much pain.

So assuming your cherub has gotten past the difficulties of searching for reliable data, what then? I’m interested in this question, because it gets at the heart of a skill that is still in development in the teen years, namely, the organizational or “outline” ability.

Teens must take a series of facts and organize them into some sort of outline in order to use them effectively to support the points they are trying to make in a paper. When faced with thousands of words and no clue how to arrange them, a child may  be daunted by the task.

My suggestion for you today: Have your kids practice with fake facts! I made the following exercise for kids in my co-op class, using a topic I love: chocolate. I made up a thesis statement and provided a list of imaginary facts found in my “research” (though I wouldn’t be surprised if someone put up some of these “facts” on the Internet by now. They’re all true, honest!).

My goal was to give the kids a variety of supporting particulars and then to ask them to write overall points these particulars supported. We were working through material in Help for High School by Julie Bogart. This program is a self-directed writing program for high schoolers. I love it! You can find it here.


The kids had fun reading my imaginary facts. It made the task of organizing information less daunting. They worked together and came up with points such as, “Those who consume too much chocolate are prone to violence,” and “Eating chocolate causes consumers to lose the ability to focus on performing tasks unrelated to chocolate.” Luckily we don’t live in this world, right?

Here is the activity. Note that we had already discussed how to make a strong thesis statement and what points and particulars were.

Here is your thesis: Although consuming small quantities of dark chocolate has been shown to improve health, chocolate consumption in fact leads inevitably to the destruction of society.

Now, what are the points? I don’t know yet, but I have the following particulars. Your job is to organize them under three points that help prove my thesis.

Point 1:__________________________________________________________________


Point 2:__________________________________________________________________


Point 3:__________________________________________________________________


Known fact: Eating a piece of chocolate immediately leads to a quest to eat another piece of chocolate. The cycle continues until the chocolate eater gets tired and has to go to bed.

Joe Bob, author of Chocolate, Oh No You Di-nt recounts the story of his first trip to Hershey’s Chocolate World. After the chocolate ride, as each person emerged and ate their complimentary chocolate, there was a general, “rolling of the eyes” and “jiggling of the bodies” as “drool poured from their mouths in copious amounts.” Then the group ran back to the entrance to ride again.

The Chocolate Research Lab conducted a study of 1200 self-defined chocoholics and found they spent 95% of their time planning the destruction of mankind. The other 5% of their time was spent looking for more chocolate.

In interviewing Pulitzer Prize winner turned chocolatier Julia Dragon, when the interviewer asked her to recall significant works on the existential crises of young men in post-war Vietnam, her sole response was, “Where do you buy your chocolate?”

We must recall the sad events of December 1, 2011. When one man in Topeka, KS stationed himself outside the Godiva chocolate shop and held up pictures of broccoli and carrots to all potential customers, the customers were so traumatized as to require hospitalization due to Post Vegetable Viewing Disorder. The man then entered the store and ate the entire display of Chocorific truffles.

Known fact: Humans have a chocolate gene that, once activated, can never be deactivated.

An entire co-op literature class was arrested in St. Louis, MO and subsequently imprisoned after one chocolate-eating session led to cannibalistic activity. One member of the class was overheard to say, “I know there’s chocolate in there.”

The New York Times article, “Halloween, Family Game Night Killer?” tells the story of the Halloran family who, until Halloween 2009, had faithfully gathered each Friday night for family game night. Not having celebrated Halloween up to that point because of a strict “no sugar, no cavities” policy put in place by their dentist parents, the kids at last gained permission to trick or treat one time, “for the experience of it.” Upon their return, the children’s mouths were covered in chocolate and their eyes had a distinct glassy quality. They then declined an invitation to play Monopoly. In fact, the only way they would agree to play from that date forward was if chocolate gold coins were substituted for paper money in the game.

A survey of 1200 chocolate factory workers revealed that while 95% liked their jobs, 95% also expressed frustration at their inability to make and eat the chocolate at the same time. 98% have requested a transfer to the chocolate tasting department at some time in their careers. 99% failed to identify possible jobs they could hold outside the chocolate factory. One respondent wrote the following: “Why would anyone work outside the chocolate factory? What’s the point?”

Following a Rabbit Trail: Allowing Kids to Direct Their Learning

Rabbit trails. I’ve heard this term a lot lately as I follow some homeschoolers on Periscope and Facebook. Here’s the idea: As homeschoolers, we have a responsibility not to impose the traditional “rules of school” onto our kids. Why homeschool if not to embrace the freedom allowed by our educational choice? Are we really going to set up a traditional classroom at home, complete with prescribed curriculum and schedule of subjects to be covered throughout the day?

If you’re me, the answer has too often been “Yes” to that last question. As a former educator, it was so hard to let go of the school mentality. I felt bound to “cover” a curriculum completely, although I never once got all the way through a textbook when I was a teacher in middle and high school. Ha! I adore the idea of interest-led learning, where a kid finds a topic she is interested in knowing more about, and then takes time to pursue it. We have done this a bit over the years: my kids have delved into the Celts, ancient China, and animé. But too often, I must admit, we depended on prescribed curriculum to get through a homeschool year, mostly because I was busy doing other things and didn’t have time to help my kids access the resources needed to follow a rabbit trail.

I am inspired to give my daughter the opportunity to build her history class for next year, though. Her story begins with a love of the soundtrack for this musical:


The girl has gone absolutely bananas for all things related to Alexander Hamilton, first Treasury secretary under George Washington. No one could have predicted this obsession! I had a sudden idea: What if we created a year of history related to Alexander Hamilton? A sort of “Six Degrees of Separation from Alexander Hamilton” if you will?

My daughter was on board. Great! Now what? Internet searching is a tiring procedure, but I started there. Resources for teaching history to a high schooler, U.S. history from the colonial era to the Civil War, to be exact. My daughter is going to create a website tying whatever we discover to Alexander Hamilton in some way. Here are some of the resources we’ll be using:

  1. Crash Course. Author John Green and his brother have created a series of informative, engaging videos on a range of topics. My daughter finds them hilarious, so we’ll definitely include the U.S. History ones.
  2. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.  A search for topics related to the AP U.S. History exam led me here. I love the collection of videos, essays, and primary source documents because they are organized by time periods and by themes. There’s even an Alexander Hamilton-themed page! Score!
  3. Musicals. We’re looking into every historical musical we can find as well as information about what musical theater looked like during this era. We’ll see Hamilton this summer, and we’ll try to find 1776, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Amazing Grace and any other musical of note either in person or on video. I love the idea one educator had of comparing songs from the musical Hamilton with primary source documents (Washington’s farewell letter and the song “One Last Time,” for example).
  4. Field Trips. Historical sites from colonial times and the Civil War era abound in our neck of the woods, so we’ll definitely make a few pilgrimages. Gettysburg, Yorktown, Williamsburg, the Freedom Trail, Historic Philadelphia, and the Minute Man National Historic Park are all possibilities. As well as any site where Alexander Hamilton may have set foot, of course. 😉
  5. Books. We are trying out this book for a spine since it’s not a meaty textbook, but covers the basic scope of the time period.  We’ll pull from the great suggestions of the homeschool community for light reads, including Genevieve Foster’s books and the Horrible Histories series. Because, books = fun.
  6. Othello. We’re also delving into a year of Shakespeare per my daughter’s request, so I’d like to pair a study of Othello with the topic of slavery. While many of Shakespeare’s plays explore the problem of difference, this play does it excellently. I’m learning a lot from the Folgers Shakespeare library, and I relish using the wonderful ideas in this text to learn Shakespeare by doing Shakespeare.

[Edit: I had to add in this fabulous article tying the language in Hamilton to that of Shakespeare.]

That will get us started, anyway. I leave room for new stuff to crop up as we explore the topic. If we’re feeling ambitious, we might also explore History Day and see if we want to get in on that action. How are you planning for rabbit trails next year?