Friday, June 24, 2016

Who benefits from standardized testing?

A student in our High School Diploma Program is taking a standardized test, and was inspired to research standardized testing in the U.S. Here's her essay on what she learned.

In the past month, night and day, all I have been doing is preparing for my California High School Proficiency Exam, or C.H.S.P.E. for short. If you know anything about me, and my way of thinking, you know that I think standardized testing is completely ridiculous. Spending hours upon hours, memorizing complex formulas to be tested on, only to go home and forget them, and if in anytime in my life I just so happened to need this particular formula, I google it. Now as I was trying to rationalize standardize testing this past week, I fell down a rabbit hole and found out some things I had no idea about, which just proves the validity of my opinion on these tests even further. 

I do believe there should be a way to track underperforming schools, and their major racial disparities, in the quality of education children receive. President George W. Bush also thought that, and on his third day of Presidency installed the “No Child Left Behind Act.” This program was designed to be data driven and involve testing children every single year in order to identify and fix failing schools, which sounded like a terrific idea. But, the act almost tripled the amount of required tests from six to seventeen.

Today in America, students are taking between ten to twenty standardized tests, depending on their grade. That equates to a total average of 113 different tests by graduation, which is an absurd number. The rates at which students are protesting some of these tests is also an absurd number. For example, In May of 2015 an entire class of juniors in Seattle, boycotted the Common Core Smarter Balance Test. Teachers from a school in North Carolina told CNN, that about 20% of their third graders cry when it comes to the standardized tests and that there is actually an official instruction pamphlet on what to do if a student vomits on his or her test. Am I the only one who thinks that if there are legitimate official instructions on what to do if a child throws up on their desk, due to an an overwhelming sense of anxiety, maybe we should try something different? Based on our world standing these tactics don’t seem to be propelling us to the top in education. In 1999, America placed in twenty-eighth place in a group of forty nations who took the International Math and Science Test.

By the time President Barack Obama was in presidency, he noticed that the tactics we are using aren’t working correctly for optimal results. He took his own education initiatives, and started a program none as “Rack to the Top.” Rack to the Top encouraged states to adopt the common core. While he had good intentions, there are a lot of things terribly ignorant about this program. 

One of these things, which sounds like a good idea if done fairly, is the pay rate of the teachers based on a student’s test scores. While I believe this could be done correctly, in a way that just holds teachers accountable who are lacking accountability, but the implementation of this is completely out of line. One of the approaches used is called the “value-added analysis”, where you pay teachers based on certain test scores. If a student who ranked in the 60th percentile tests higher at the end of the year, the teacher gets a better rating, and unfortunately if the students receives a lower score at the end of the year, the rate of the teacher’s pay also drops. The problem about this, is that tests are so difficult, it is nearly impossible for the children to pass, and only very few do.

For instance, one teacher in Florida was shocked and suspicious when he found out that only 39 percent of his districts 10th grade class scored an average or above average score in reading on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, also known as the “F.C.A.T.” He decided to ask the school district and legally get the closest thing he could to the F.C.A.T. When he took the assessment it put him, and labeled him under the “poor reader” category. Now the shocking thing about this is the fact that this man has 5 master degrees, has been reelected on the school board 4 times, and teaches 39 graduate courses at six different universities. 

With that being said, I think it’s fair enough to say that these tests fail to reflect ability. So my question was, if these standardize tests are poor for the students and the teachers, then who are they benefiting? The simplest answer; companies such as Pearson. Pearson is the largest of these companies, and as of 2012, are 40% of the testing market. That almost triples their nearest competitor, McGraw Hill. Pearson has such an immense amount of influence over American schools. For example, a hypothetical girl could take Pearson tests from Kindergarten through at least eighth grade, test that she studied for by using Pearson curriculum and textbooks, taught by Pearson certified teachers. Pearson is also the provider of the tests taken for learning disabilities, and the G.E.D. 

In summary, while there is an argument to be made that there needs to be some sort of test to assist with determining high school graduation, proficiency and college placement, the system as it stands, seems to only benefit Pearson and its competitors, not American students. These companies are so powerful; no one really feels like their voice can be heard to change this disastrous system. In order for things to change everyone who believes that there must be a better solution, has to use their voice. Everyone will say “I’m just one person”, but if hundreds of thousands of people say that, think of the impact they would have if they all came together, and instead said, “this needs to change.”

~ Caroline Mehki, CA

Friday, May 6, 2016

A year-end report from a diverse and accomplished teenager

Our students have a wide variety of interests, and the freedom to pursue them to mastery. Below is a an excerpt from one of our family's year-end report, focusing on the accomplishments and life-learning of 16 year old Kitt. 

Kitt has had an amazing year for prizes. First, he completed his eagle scout rank, after going to the board of review (interview). Soon afterwards, he attended a week-long National Youth Leadership Training for scouts, where he was selected as one of the excellent scouts who were requested to serve as future staff. His eagle court of honor ceremony was held, after a bit of planning, too. Kitt has also been on 4-5 campouts this year, including rock climbing at Joshua Tree National Park. Doing most of the work himself, he has built a trebuchet and a teepee out of a tarp.

Next, he competed for his 7th year in 4H shooting sports. Although he didn’t achieve his best score in archery, he aced the shotgun with a record 5 out of 5 score. He even hit all 3 practice shots, to bring it to 8 out of 8 shots. That got him the Grand Champion in Shotgun award, as well as winning the high point shooter for the entire club for the season. Kitt has his own bow and target and practices at home as often as he can (when there are no neighbors in residence). He is extremely conscientious about safety rules and proper technique. He even gave a few tips to the adult archery instructor at 4H.

At county fair, Kitt won 4 Grand Champion prizes. His oil painting of a farmhouse won him Grand Champion in Fine Arts, while his Turkish ebru painting of a tulip garnered Reserve Grand Champion. His copper twisted necklace with blue beads won Grand Champion in Arts & Crafts, and his larger leather Viking belt bag (made without a kit or pattern) won Grand Champion in Leathercraft (other projects). On top of all that, Kitt won Grand Champion for Home Economics, sweeping the prize for the while building for his senior age class. Wow! All total, Kitt got $120 in prize money. He had entered one painting in Fine Arts open class, but that only received a blue ribbon and outstanding. As for the interview section of the fair, Kitt got purple ribbons (outstanding) for all three interviews. They noted how knowledgeable he seemed and confident. His appearance had improved over last year, but the only negative room for improvement was noted that he needs to iron his white dress shirt. Kitt put a lot of time and effort into all the pieces that he made for Fair, including meeting with a special mentor in Leathercraft. He was amazed at the skill of his new mentor and learned a lot from him. Also, his Leathercraft leader was very encouraging and always ready to lend Kitt tools. Kitt put most of his prize money into his savings account, and I treated him to a few new Leathercraft tools as a reward for his hard work. He is already thinking of what he wants to make for next year.

Kitt has also earned his Congressional Award Bronze medal, which will be handed to him at a ceremony in October, when our Congressman will be in our city. For this award, Kitt counts his fitness hours, personal development and volunteer hours. Besides volunteering with scouts (about 15 hours) and the Jr. Optimist club (about 35 hours), Kitt has a regular volunteer service that he does about once a week at the local historic park. He serves as the historic blacksmith there, making items out of metal and explaining both the process and history to park visitors. This year he has logged about 50 hours, including the Civil War reenactment event and the Gathering of the Gunfighters event at the Yuma Territorial Prison historic park. He absolutely loved the Civil War event and got “drafted” to serve with the artillery during a battle reenactment. He was initiated into the group and hopes to serve with them again next year for the reenactment here in Yuma. In the meantime, he has acquired a pattern for Union Army pants which he wants to make with my help. All of his volunteering as the historical blacksmith is done in his historic clothing portraying the 1870’s in Yuma. Kitt was also invited to and attended the Civil War costume ball held by invitation only after the reenactment in the evening. He learned several historic dances while attending. He also listened to Abraham Lincoln (reenactor) give a talk and later had President Lincoln talk to him individually when he visited the forge. As a volunteer at the park, Kitt was given free tickets and attended a historic talk by a President Teddy Roosevelt reenactor, which he enjoyed a lot.

Kitt has earned a few more scout merit badges and enjoys going to workshops for those. Many of the workshops are STEM related, and I count them as science for Kitt. Among others, he earned this year Nuclear Science (visiting a power plant visitor center), Space Exploration, and Engineering.  He also likes to experiment himself and to take things apart at home to see what is inside them. Kitt was also invited to go for a free private flying lesson with an EAA pilot. He learned a lot from that and hopes to do it again in the Fall. He even wants to learn about building an EAA plane.

As for English, Kitt is still working on Spelling and Composition, but this is never his highest priority. He does vocabulary building without even noticing it and has a rich and varied vocabulary. We have several workshops/ programs that he uses but this is an area he needs to improve.

As founder and president of the college tabletop game club, Kitt hosts game day once a week for 2 hours. That means he has put in over 60 hours in games of strategy and logic. This includes reading complicated instructions and teaching others how to play the games. This is one of his great interests, and he hopes to host even more game clubs next year. He has already spoken to the teen librarian to start there in the Fall as a volunteer hosting a weekly 2-hour game day. Kitt also tried out new games with other people and chooses new ones to buy for himself and the game club.
Kitt also loves to travel and enjoys historical places. He often visits Viking villages and museums in Sweden. Last year he even volunteered at a Viking village for a couple of days. I believe he may do that again this summer. He gave an hour long presentation for a college class about Vikings this year.  

If Kitt had to choose a subject to study in college, he would probably choose archeology or history. He likes the experiential archeology that they employ in Sweden. Last summer Kitt visited Istanbul, Turkey and Helsinki, Finland, besides our home in Sweden and neighboring Denmark. We also geocache when we travel or go for a walk. 


Friday, March 25, 2016

Life-learning while being an "au-pair" in Australia

This blog post features a student who is doing an "au-pair" program in Australia, where she is assisting a home-schooling family with their children in exchange for room and board. Her report illustrates how she weaves online courses, literature, botany and traveling together for extraordinary educational experiences. The pictures are the ones she took of the Blue Mountains in Australia.

This month I started and completed another course called "Biology meets programming: Bioinformatics for beginners." It was on applying computer programming to analyse DNA and try and figure out various things such as where the replication point is located. It was a really tough course as I haven’t done much biology and have never tried computer programming before. I did ok on the quizzes however the interactive components of the textbook left me very confused as they required a lot of programming and I had trouble understanding how the functions operated and how to create my own. I also didn’t have much time during the week to do the work, and was a little behind from the start. In the end I had to let go of the hope to do well on the course and decided just to try my best to understand what I could. I did learn some interesting things about how the DNA replicates in a certain direction and how certain algorithms work. I found randomized algorithms to be quite interesting even though I didn’t fully understand how they function. Due to the program I ended up making an account for python and doing many of the exercises they offer. Programing is definitely interesting, I think I just need more practice memorizing the language used. I find I have a little difficulty when it comes to understanding more abstract ideas in math, which is a skill I hope to work on.

I also started to read a German book called Drachenreiter, which means Dragonrider. It has an English translation that I read many years ago but as I like the author I always wanted to read the original German version. It’s a little difficult as I haven’t read German in a while and occasionally I will need a little extra time to remember a word. It’s a strange sensation to have my reading pace change slightly, but I am enjoying the story. It’s about how mythical creatures exist hidden away from humans and the last group of dragons home is about to be destroyed by humans, so one of the dragons heads off with his kobold friend to find the dragons’ ancestral home. On the way they pick up a homeless human boy who helped them out and he goes on the journey with them.

I did more volunteering at the botanical garden, and it was quite enjoyable. I learned how to take clippings and plant them. The idea is that you peel of the leaves along 1/3 of the stalk and the nip off the top. You also need to scrape away a strip along the bottom with your nail to promote the growth of roots. Before we plant them we also dipped the ends in a compound called clonex, which seals the cut ends and supplies hormones needed for the growth of roots. It’s interesting learning a little bit about the more scientific side of gardening. On the surface it seems so straight forward, you just plant and water them, but there are many aspects to growing a strong plant, and sometimes no matter what you do they can still die.

For a weekend I went to the Blue Mountains with family I’m staying with for the weekend. It’s an extremely stunning area and we did a lot of hiking along the cliffs. I read that the reason they seem to be blue is because of the way the light refracts through all the dust particles floating around. So the further something is the more dust is in your line of sight and the bluer it seems. We also went on the cable cars and on one we were told the aboriginal story of the three sisters, which are three giant rocks sticking up from a cliff. The legend apparently goes there were three beautiful sisters from one tribe and three brothers from another tribe who fell in love with them. The brothers wanted to take the sisters for themselves but the shaman of their tribe turned them into rocks to protect them. However the shaman then died in a battle between the tribes and no one else was able to break the spell over them again.
On our way back from the Blue Mountains we stopped at a high ropes course. It was my first time visiting one so I was pretty excited. We were given a little safety run-through and then left to go wild. I mostly stayed with the ten year old I look after, and on the most difficult course she was allowed to do she got stuck on the end as you have to jump of a ledge with only a pulley to slow your fall. I had a little time to consider what the repercussions of giving her a push would be, mainly losing her trust in me for a couple days or so, before a worker came and dropped her over the edge. It was extremely physically tiring but very exciting. 

I was invited to go on a distant relative’s sailboat and had an amazing time. I had no knowledge about sailing before but I learned quite a bit just watching and was even allowed to help, and steered the boat a little on the way back, although with engine going and the sails tucked away. It seems the boat has to travel in a zigzag sort of way, where it follows the wind one way for a bit then they pull the sail to the other side and turn to travel the other way. The trick is to keep the wind at your back, which sounds pretty obvious but seems easier said than done. They used instruments and little ribbons attached to the sail called tell-tales to let them know which way the wind was blowing.

~ Rowena, 2016 High School Senior

Friday, January 8, 2016

Homeschooling teenager becomes pro disc golfer

Eagle McMahon is a Senior at West River Academy. Here he shares his experience homeschooling: how he learned to read, his "Notebook" method of planning his studies, and becoming a professional disc golfer. 

"Homeschooling has been the greatest gift of my life. Many kids dream of being homeschooled and I have been able to pursue this lifestyle my entire life. It has given me so many opportunities that I would not have had if I had sat in a classroom all day. I have gotten to spend a lot of time with my family, giving me special relationships with my father and grandparents. My father and grandparents are my homeschool teachers. This opportunity has given special perks over the years. For example, this past year I traveled across the USA and competed against the world’s best professional disc golfers. 

Homeschooling is based around me being able to structure my studies around my interests and create my own schedule. The main lesson it has taught me is that you do not just learn from school, you learn from everything.

My learning process has always been relaxed and fun. I have never felt pressured or stressed about learning. Because of this, I am calm and confident when I have to take on tasks. I attribute this to my loved ones for being positive and supportive of this lifestyle.
Going way back in my memory as far as I remember, when I first started off as a pre-homeschooler, I had many interests that jump started my education. I was into Legos, Transformers, and trains. I always dove deep into my hobbies and fully engrossed myself in my interests. I would collect every Transformer, know all of their names, and transform them in a flash. A fond memory I have of these early days is when my dad and I built a landscape for my toy trains. It had tunnels, elevation, and bridges for me to put toy train tracks on. One day we spent all day making a train track that went throughout the entire house. I learned to take things to a different level while having fun! My family was always there to help me learn about my interests and support me in any way they could.

During my early years of academics, I remember going to bookstores and picking out school workbooks. Every time I finished a workbook, which was about every six months, we would go back to the bookstore and get the next grade. My father used a method called the “Notebook.” It was a composition book that he used to schedule my school day. My schedule usually included things like; two pages of math, two pages of science, two pages of reading/writing, exercise, goal setting, and organizing. I looked forward to my new tasks every day. Completing these tasks gave me a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence. We still use the “Notebook” method to this day, and it is still effective as ever. I plan on using this technique for the rest of my life as my daily to-do lists.

My greatest homeschool experience is when my father took me on a trip to Hawaii. I was nine years old and it was after my mother passed. He claims he used this time for bonding and setting our new life and education in motion. We spent eight weeks of the winter from January through February to get out of the cold winter. We spent five of the eight weeks on Maui and the other three weeks on the Main Island. At the time, I barely knew how to read. One of my father’s main intentions of the trip was to teach me how to read. I spent a lot of time reading and being read to. I remember the first book I read, “Fantastic Mister Fox” by Roald Dahl. It was a perfect first book to read for a nine year old, because it was fun and captivating. We made learning to read fun by reading on beautiful beaches under the sun. Once I got a hang of reading, I read one book after the other, completing four Roald Dahl novels in the next eight weeks.

After the Hawaii experience, I realized how special homeschooling was. My education from ages ten years old to present has been unconventional and different than most others. For one, I have been able to pursue my love for cooking and nutrition. My mother and father have raised me a vegetarian, so food has always been a big thing in my life. My grandmother has always made delicious food and I saw her as an inspiration to cook food myself. Since I was at my grandparent’s house a lot for school, I had the opportunity to cook almost every day. I was a natural in the kitchen, had a knack for spices, and knew how to season food. My grandfather was so impressed with my cooking skills, that he started to ask me to cook instead of my grandmother.

Another passion of mine is buying and selling. At the time, I was really into mountain biking. It was a great way to get out in nature and exercise. However, I enjoyed buying bikes and re-selling them so I could upgrade to a better bike. In the course of one year, I bought and sold nine bikes. The first bike I bought was $200. The first premium bike I bought was $1100 and the last one I bought was a $5000 bike I got for $2500. I used the bike for a year and then re-sold it for more money.The way I earned the money was by working with my father and buying and selling these bikes on craigslist. I was obsessed with selling items (I still am). I also sold random house hold items and valuable frisbees I collected from playing disc golf. I got very good at dealing with people and negotiating because I was doing it on a daily basis. I have learned through this to buy, sell, trade, and use craigslist which are all valuable things that I will use the rest of my life. These experiences have inspired me so much that I want to pursue a business career.

I am most proud of what I have done in disc golf. Disc golf is like standard golf, except instead of hitting a ball into a hole, you are throwing a frisbee into a suspended metal basket. When I was 9 years old, my father’s friend introduced us to the sport. At first we liked it, but just thought of it as a simple game. The more we played, the more we got involved. We played almost everyday. It was a passion we both shared and I learned a lot on the courses. I learned discipline, focus, patience, and how to control my emotions. This sport is still teaching and helping me grow to this day.

From the time I started playing disc golf up until now, it is still very much a part of my life. I have reached professional status, make money doing it, am ranked one of the top players in the world, and have five sponsors that support my game and my travels.have traveled all around the United States to compete against the best players. This next year will be bigger and better than ever. I will be going to Sweden and Finland to compete. Disc golf is one of the fastest growing sports in the world and I am fortunate to be in on the ground level. The growth of the sport is creating more opportunities to make money. I won $1545 for winning a state tournament! I plan to keep pursuing this and possibly get involved with the business and marketing side of the sport. This passion of mine has brought out my adventurous side and has taught me some valuable life skills. I have learned to book my own flights, plan out my finances, and be resourceful without parents around. Now that I am recognized as one of the top players, I have my own YouTube channel and I do my own video blogs of my travel experiences. As a result, I have become interested with film production and photo editing and it is one of my senior courses.

In reviewing all these years, I have realized how proud I am of my alternative education. It is a unique way of life that most people do not understand. I have never been in a traditional school setting or classroom. The benefits of being a homeschool student are outstanding. I have learned many important life lessons through every day tasks and living life. My closest friends are my family and they have all taught me so much; from my father exercising with me, my Grandfather teaching me science, my uncle giving computer tips, and my grandmother with everything. I would not change the way I have done anything. My classroom is life, everyday, all the time. Only a homeschooler would know how great it is.
I believe the freedoms that come with Homeschooling have helped me experience more than your traditional student. My classroom one day is in a coffee shop, the next day the library, the next day a hiking trail, the next day a museum, the next day the disc golf course, and the next day Hawaii. School is living my life and pursuing my interest and goals with all my heart. The enjoyment of learning and growing does not have to be a task. 

Homeschooling has enabled me to live in a way that allows me to be myself. Although traditional schooling may be good for others, I do not believe it would have been for me. I am forever grateful to my parents for choosing this lifestyle for my education.
The whole homeschooling lifestyle has been the greatest gift my parents have given to me. Now that I am almost ready to graduate and move onto college to start pursuing a career, I believe I have some ideas about what I want to pursue in the future. I am planning on studying business and marketing because of my resourcefulness and talent in dealing deal with people. I would eventually like to own my own business. I have taken inspiration from others who have created that for themselves. It seems like owning your own business closely relates to homeschooling in so many ways. If you are a business owner, you can shape your own schedule, be the boss of yourself, and create what you want.

I am already set up for that lifestyle because of homeschooling. All my experiences over the years from collecting, buying, selling, traveling, being creative, and developing a disc golf following has set me up for something big in the future. If I were to create a business involving disc golf, I feel as if I would already have a mass amount of support and many options. Homeschooling has taught me to set goals and go get what you want and what you need. If I need to learn something or get something done, I know how to go about doing it.

I have many goals I want to achieve this year and beyond. As a homeschooler, I have been taught that there are no boundaries and that you are allowed to think outside the box. 

Humans are capable of great things and all it takes is persistence and the ability to follow your dreams. I want to live a very prosperous life full of happiness and confidence. I expect to achieve that because of who I am as a person. Everything that I have learned and my experiences have taught me that with passion and hard work anything can be done. If I have the right mindset, I believe I can do anything." 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Homeschooling teen learns martial arts, archery, 4-H and volunteers at a community food bank

This essay was written by a high school senior who was homeschooled for his whole life. Homeschooling gave him the opportunity to pursue several interests and volunteer within his community. Here are excerpts from his essay. 


Hi, my name is Connor Maricle. I have been homeschooled all my life for which I am grateful. While it is not perfect, homeschooling has helped me with time-management, allowed me to study at my own pace, and has given me time for other activities such as martial arts, archery, 4-H, volunteering, and working. Through these activities I have learned various skills which cannot easily be acquired in a classroom. Although I have not had as many teachers as other students in public school, there have been people who have helped me to learn through active involvement in community organizations. Some examples of people who have contributed to my education are my martial arts instructors, archery instructors, 4-H leaders, food bank employees, and work supervisor.

Homeschooling has been a positive experience allowing me the flexibility to meet my personal goals, learn interesting subjects at my own pace, and contribute to our community. As a young child I remember doing various games, projects, experiments, and activities that provided a solid foundation in the basics of reading, writing, history, math, and science in interesting and fun ways. I had time for reading and playing every day which I believe helped contribute to my imagination and creativity today. 

As the years have gone by I have had the opportunity to study quite a variety of interesting subjects. While some subjects have been more enjoyable than others I have still learned an extensive amount through being homeschooled. I have not gone to a public school, but I have talked to others who have attended, and there seems to be more pressure there than being homeschooled. Homeschooling has allowed me to have plenty of time for independent study. I learn faster by doing rather than by reading, writing, or memorizing. If I am enjoying a topic I learn even faster. As such, I tend to learn more through independent study than from learning through a textbook.

Martial arts has helped me learn many things as well: from balance and a bit of Korean, to morals such as honesty and integrity. The martial art I am learning is Tang Soo Do. The people at the studio are all really nice and excellent instructors willing to help someone who wants to learn. Tang Soo Do is an important part of my life, and I plan on continuing it as long as possible. The atmosphere of encouragement and support from those at the studio is unique in the Tang Soo Do community, and is something I carry inside of me even when I am not there. I hope to some day pass on the traditions of Tan Soo Do. Through Tang Soo Do I have been able to improve my leadership skills by leading the students in various warm-up exercises and by helping some of the lower-ranked students improve their forms and techniques. This has also helped me to gain more confidence in myself.

While Tang Soo Do is important to me it was not my first extra-curricular activity. I was about ten years old when I started archery which taught me more than just how to shoot an arrow. From my instructor I learned the importance of cross-training, the responsibility that comes with a weapon, that a person needs to take everything into account when shooting at a target, and that bows and arrows are not toys. Archery was one of the first incredibly difficult things I tried to learn. From this experience I learned firsthand that it takes time and diligence to get good at something. Many of my classmates dropped out, and once in a while I thought about dropping out as well. I decided to continue and challenge myself to improve. Eventually the school I went to closed, and I took a break before I started lessons again at a new place. I was very rusty at first because even though I had taken archery lessons for four years, my one-year break had dulled my skills. Once I got back in the swing of things I became the best in my class. It was at that point I saw the pay-off from all the effort I had put into archery. While I did feel extremely proud, I believe some of my classmates may have felt discouraged by my “unusual improvement  rate”. Overall, archery was an enjoyable sport for me. I’m glad I did it even though I don’t plan on using it in daily life.

I was eleven when I started 4-H. At first I wasn’t sure whether I would like it or not because it seemed more like an activity my sister would enjoy. After the first few years, though, I started to really enjoy 4-H. Although our club wasn’t very big I still met quite a few people and had numerous opportunities to participate in community events. During my time in 4-H, I learned a great deal about animals (that was my club’s specialty), volunteer work, and how to work with groups of people. I even got some awards in the process. One of the more difficult things I did in 4-H was volunteer at the fair’s Petting Zoo. While it was frustrating at the time because of the high number of young kids, looking back on it I felt it was enjoyable and quite a learning experience in crowd-control and keeping the cavies (guinea pigs) safe. The animals I raised were cavies. Many people in the club had rabbits, cavies, and poultry (chickens, ducks, and turkeys). I had two cavies. Though other people in the club had more animals, I still learned the responsibility of animal ownership. I was also able to participate in fun community service projects through our club, such as: making no-sew fleece blankets for a children’s shelter, designing cards for soldiers, making holiday cookies for the fire department, and sharing my cavies with children at petting zoos. I also learned more about responsibility and leadership skills by being an officer in our club for several years. Our club members were talented people, so I was able to learn important information about a variety of topics. Even though our club was small our district was large, so I had various opportunities to learn from and interact with several knowledgeable and energetic leaders from other clubs.

Shortly after joining 4-H I started volunteering at the Fairbanks Community Food Bank which was my first “real” job. I have done a variety of tasks at the food bank, such as: sorted canned goods, sorted bread, prepared food boxes, boxed produce and meat, and packaged butter, flour, rice, and sugar. It was tedious at times, but also fun. It was also a good learning experience for me. I learned about defects in canned goods, various types of meat, how to set up and manage a short-term or long-term project, and that no matter how damaged something looks in the store it is much better than what may be available at the food bank.

I am glad that I was homeschooled as it has given me many opportunities for growth and development while still having time for other things that I enjoy. Because of homeschooling I was able to do activities I wouldn’t normally have had time to do. As a result, I met many great people who helped me become who I am today. While I don’t know what the future holds, I feel that I am prepared to start the next part of my life. I am looking forward to future opportunities to make positive contributions to my community.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Cultural Studies, Crafts and Pets guide learning in a Life-long unschooler's life

Our high school student Austin Hildebrand has been homeschooled all of his life. He has used his heritage and interests to guide his learning. Here's his thoughts on his experience.

"Being homeschooled is by the far the best gift one can be given when it comes to their education. 

I have been told that statement many times before, and I completely agree. Having the opportunity to have my lessons be structured around my interests made them more interesting and it took a lot of time and effort for that to be done for me.
But as a student, you have more freedom to do the things you enjoy, explore deeper into the things that you love or become obsessed with knowing about, and learn from the people you love most. Homeschooling is not just taught by your parents, but the entire family helps out. Which means that you get to spend a lot of quality time learning from your grandparents, parents, various other relatives, and family friends.

This is precisely the gift I have been given, and I am deeply thankful for every minute of it.

I have been homeschooled all of my years, starting from pre-school homeschooling. This year, I will finally graduate. Since we have been homeschooling for a long time now, my Mom lets me direct most of my own lessons now to make me learn time management and responsibility. I'll need those skills for college and in life, so she has just directed like a manager and gives reviews for most things. We still take time to do fun stuff too.

The furthest back that I can remember I'd say it was my Mom buying books that would be easy and fun for me to read because they were about Little Critter or Guinea Pigs. Then I read them daily to my pet guinea pigs. Reading to a pet is a good way to learn, and they love the attention too. I also used to read to my Great Grandmother plus do puppet shows for her while she was staying with us while going through Chemotherapy sessions. It was a nice way to spend time with her that the other grandkids didn't have. We would read together, put her feet in my movable sandbox (that we used to learn how to do archaeology digs in), put a cat or guinea pig on her lap, gave her some tea and muffins that I helped Mom make, then read. My Father was a puppeteer so I had my own puppet stage (a gift from my grandparents) and used puppets that he made for me.

I also used to create a lot of craft projects to put around the house, naturally, to make the house more interesting. Like creating an Elasmosaurus across the back of the couch out of papers that my Mom had set aside for me to draw on (recycling them from her work papers). Or making balloon animals for the Homeschooling County Supervisor when she was there to review my school year. She was impressed and took the balloon animals home for her grandson.

One of my Grandfather's would sneak out of work early so we could go to the movies together. It was a lot of fun and we often ate together after the movie and visited the Lego Store. He worked long hours and lived over an hour away, so going to movies was a way for us to spend time together. Mostly the movies were in the early afternoon, and for most kids that would have been school hours. Since I was homeschooled, we always adjusted our schedule and went while he was available. Homeschooling gives you the freedom to take breaks when you want to or need to.

I started to learn to cook small things with my Mom and my Grandmothers. Now I can help cook items for big family meals or holidays. What I love most is watching Japanese cooking shows and then trying to make them at home with my Mom. We are learning Japanese and cooking is a good way to learn their culture. All foods have meaning to the Japanese. They go by season, colors, presentation and what each part of that presentation stands for. I have tried a lot of foods I may normally not have tried because it was 'different'. My Step-Grandmother is Korean, so I have also been trying some Korean food and I'm enjoying that too. Also Chinese food, since my Mother liakes that also.

While we were learning World Geography, part of learning about each country, we would cook foods from it. Also read books from that country (at least folk tales), find movies about it or documentaries. My Mom runs a homeschooling cooperative, so she used to organize field trips that included a lot of cultural themes to them. We don't live in the Washington, DC area anymore, so it is harder to find as many field trip places to go in Iowa for cultural studies. A lot of that has to be done with virtual tours and watching Foreign News programs or documentaries.

As I mentioned, I'm learning the Japanese Language;
the culture, its history, cooking, music, and about its pop culture too. We have been focusing on Japanese for many years now. As a way to build listening skills, we often take a day or two and have an anime watching or Godzilla movie marathon. Complete with special foods, snacks, and quite often in our pjs. I try to listen to music from Japan and any time the Japanese Language is an option for a movie or program, I choose to listen in Japanese.

My Mom and I loved the Smithsonian National Zoo, so we used to go there frequently. Our favorites are the Tigers, Pandas, and Red Pandas first. Then we would spent a lot of time with the Capybaras, Naked Mole Rats, Wild Cavies, and Butterfly Garden, and enjoyed watching most of the small mammal house animals. We would spend the whole day wandering around the zoo, taking breaks when needed. My Father says that we adopted most of the zoo animals. Not quite true, but we did try our best. He admits that he enjoyed it too. We mostly adopted the Pandas so we could go visit the babies before they went on display. We'd go see them as often as we could get tickets for and take people with us since we could get a few extra tickets. The Polar Bears were at the other local zoo, we didn't go there as often. We also went to the Philadelphia Zoo several times and once while there, we saw a Naked Mole Rat giving birth to babies. That was the craziest thing we'd ever seen. She would literally kick them away from her as soon as they were born, other members of her family would drag them off to a safe area. It was shocking to see, but still one of our best zoo animal stories to share. The Smithsonian National Zoo was the zoo that we spent the most time at over the years. Sometimes my Father would do puppet shows for the 'Boo In The Zoo' special event fundraiser. One of the puppeteers from his puppet company had worked as an Intern at the zoo during high school, so he helped get our homeschooling group a special tour with all kinds of extra activities.

We also did special field trips like: a Pirate Boat Adventure, musicals at a special Children's Musical Playhouse, park play dates, toured factories and a recycling center, organized lunch get-togethers with other homeschool families, attending puppet shows of other puppeteers who were friends of ours (other companies) like Dinorock. Dinorock used to let all of us touch the puppets and would explain how they worked. Plus answer endless questions from our homeschooling group about the types of dinosaurs. Often people from other countries would be at the shows and allowed backstage also to see the puppets. It was always fun to hear all the languages spoken, knowing they were expressing amazement and saying the same types of things we did. You didn't have to understand the language itself to know the joy and fascination that the puppets brought to them. The University of Maryland also had a special Henson Puppet and Creature Workshop Exhibit. Since my Dad's boss had been friends with the Henson's, we got a special showing of the Exhibit and were allowed to ask questions. My Dad helped create a puppet display for the Smithsonian Museum. Puppets have been a huge part of our life and they opened the way to many amazing opportunities and experiences that most people would never have a chance at. Performing Arts is a huge part of my life and has taught me a lot of life skills that will help me in the future.

I used to go to work with my Dad some days too. Sometimes he would be training new people and I'd go to help tell them if they were doing the lines right and where their puppets were looking. Other days I'd go to the schools with him and help set up, watch the show, then help break down the show, clean up and load the boxes back into the van. One summer I worked with him while out visiting. Now I am working with my Mother on doing gigs on I'm learning pet photography and using the staging skills I learned from working with my Dad. Now I also learned prop design, lighting skills, set design from my Dad. I get to use it with my Mom now and am learning a new version of it since the stage is smaller and the puppets are squirmy pets. You also have to learn bribery. Food bribes work wonders with the models. Cranky models can make you miss a work deadline. You also have to be quick at taking pictures. I've learned how to crop the pictures and create files to deliver them in.

For my Senior Year School Project, I am learning to build a website. With this website I plan on blogging about gaming and homeschooling. Eventually, I'd like to start a live stream channel too. In learning to build the website, I am studying coding, concept skills, how to install apps to make the page more user friendly and interesting, also how to blog. Blogging is harder than it sounds. You have to stay interesting to your readers, and do it frequently.

We have some Native American Heritage, so we used to go to Pow-Wows as much as we could. It
takes time to travel to them from Iowa, so we haven't been to one in a few years. They are very colorful and highlight a different Native Group each year. We have learned a lot about their crafts, culture, history, and our connection to it. The meaning of the outfits for Ceremonial Dances is very interesting too. Just like Japanese Ceremonial Dances or celebrations, each piece has a meaning in an outfit and the way in which the dance is done, plus the intent that you are trying to accomplish with the celebration. We notice that there are a lot of similarities in Japanese Culture and Native American Culture.
"Makes it easier to understand and respect when it isn't something new, but already a piece of yourself, just from another country's viewpoint."

We also have German Heritage, so I started to learn German Culture, History, and the language. But stopped for now while I focus more on Japanese. I'll get back to it someday.

Since we lived in the Washington, DC area for most of my life, politics is the local news. So I learned Government during my Freshman year of High School. There was so much going on that it was better to learn and understand all the important things rather than wait until this year to do it. That is a good thing about homeschooling, you can be flexible with when you learn certain subjects too. I also find watching Foreign News really gives you a new perspective of what is going on in American Politics. Also how it affects so many other Countries financially. Watching how the World reacts to our Country's decisions is really amazing.

Another thing I love about homeschooling is that we have had the opportunity to really get to know our pets. I frequently have a hedgehog on my lap or near me when I'm writing or reading. Our guinea pigs try to eat books and get wiggly, so I'm trying to train them to do tricks along with their modeling jobs. Each one has a different personality and needs. Over the years my Mom has let me have a wide variety of pets and bug projects. Anything from Triops, hermit crabs, guinea pigs, hedgehogs, cats, dogs, ghost crabs, hatching butterflies and various other bugs, and fish to just collecting bugs from outside to study.  I remember going to the park for a hike when the frogs were spawning. Everything moved. There was barely any place to walk that wasn't moving because of a frog. It was a Nature Center that I took monthly classes at but we also hiked and had picnics there a lot. It was also a great place when the cicadas hatched out to catch them and see all the eye colors. Certain eye colors were special and the Nature Center wanted you to bring them in so they could document them. Often we used to go for picnics while homeschooling and then play there while the dragonflies and butterflies were abundant. At the Nature Center close to our house here, we helped catch and tag Monarch Butterflies. Learning about how and why the Government tags them was interesting.

I think that being home has also taught me a lot of life skills that I will need. I have chores I do around the house, but also my Mom has made me learn how to properly take care of myself and any pets. One of my Grandfather's is teaching me to drive. I just need to be more motivated about it. I know it is an important skill to have, especially while living in Iowa. You can't depend on Public Transportation here, and towns are farther apart so you have to really know how to drive yourself. I'll get there.

Since I'm in my last year of school, I have to really focus on learning things that will prepare me for college and living on my own, along with my other classes. Before they were just fun parts of our day to do together, but now I know I really need to focus more on doing those jobs well so I can take care of myself and help my Mom out more. My Grandmother said she will teach me to do other life skills like canning fresh vegetables and fruits, plus jellies. I have helped in the past, but she wants to show me how easy it is to have good food around that doesn't have all the preservatives in it. We love to garden, so both of my Grandmothers can and freeze what we don't eat right away. This has been a normal part of my life, so it is good to know how to actually do it on my own so I can help out more.

I know I wouldn't have had a lot of these kinds of memories if I'd been stuck in a classroom all day. I'd have other memories, but these fit my personality and I've had a lot of fun learning from my family and spending so much time with them. I've been allowed the freedom to grow at my own pace and to dig deeper into subjects that I really like. Really digging into a topic or hobby was not looked upon as me wasting time. Instead, I received continued encouragement to spend time on things that I enjoyed. I still got everything done, just at my own pace and in my
own way. It has made me into a very good problem solver and a creative person. I like that about myself. I think they are good traits to have for future employment and in general for life."

Friday, October 16, 2015

Learning through Hub Learning

Hub Learning is another way to approach unschooling, or interest-led learning. Our high-school student wrote about his learning style, and how he applied "Hub Learning" to his interests. Here he's sharing his experiences. 

My Learning Style

"I learn in many different ways, actually in any way. It’s just a matter of time for how long I can handle it.  This depends on how it’s presented. If it is presented in a size 8 font with a wall of text I will last at most 4 minutes.  I learn easily with videos.  For example, a science video that is about 8 to 20 minutes long keeps my attention especially if it asks questions.  I have learned that one of the fastest ways to get correct information without a teacher in front of the room is to post the wrong answer, for instance on an online forum, and then someone will inevitably explain correct comparisons and give neutral answers or facts. I appreciate this way of conveying knowledge rather than just getting someone’s opinion.  Then I can think it through and make up my own mind.

An example of one of the best ways I learn is R/C airplane building.  I taught myself to build them so I could have one to fly.  That was my motivation to learn.  The same learning dynamic fell into place with the mechanical work needed for my quad:  I learned how to repair it, do upgrades, design new parts, and maintain it because I was motivated to race.  This taught me to complete things and follow my gut instinct, plus this way of learning gives me a feeling of competence and self-determination.  I consider myself to be quite skilled mechanically."

Hub Learning

"My High School years were never charted or graphed or tested, nor was I confined in a school room.  Instead I spent my time engaged in a wide variety of pursuits.  I was happy to be able to spend time learning many different things rather than only doing intellectual book work.

These years included racing quads, raising my animals (ducks, geese, chickens, and my dogs Shasta and Kermit), working on a horse ranch and learning to take care of the horses and how to maintain the facility for a year, a strong home life with my family, learning guitar on my own (electric and acoustic), working at my Dad’s Electric Bike company, and a few mornings each week doing academics, plus a handful of good friends.  Sometimes I had a tutor, like for math, and lots of times my Mom organized groups of teens to learn something together, like Money Education, but really this was for the social I think. Each of these area’s interfaced with other areas of life to network deeper into other competencies.  

My Mom calls this ‘interfacing to network’ - Hub Learning.  She told us the story of Robert Kyiosaki teaching himself to swim really well in the ocean tides so that he could surf and spear fish.  He didn’t learn to swim just to learn to swim.  He had other motives.  In fact, when his parents took him to an indoor pool to get proper swim lessons he failed, yet he was an expert swimmer in the dangerous ocean tides who could surf and spear fish.

I learn this way also.  For example, take racing:  I pay for my own quad and upgrades by working and making money at Optibike. By working at Optibike I learn lots of new skills, including entrepreneurship, marketing and finance, but basically right now I am in charge of motor assembly, electric charger assembly, service, and trouble shooting.  I also helped my Dad design a prototype for an Electric Motorcycle as part of an Optibike expansion.   I learned Autocad – from Cad Software - to design parts for my quad on the computer.  I learned to write a resume’ because it was required to get a Sponsor for my racing. I launched a website to connect with other racers and promote the sport:    All the repairs and mechanical work for my quad I do myself, plus ordering parts and interfacing with vendors in other countries.  I learned these skills so that I could race, not just to learn a particular skill for its own sake. All this revolves around one motivation – this sport I love.  All this learning branched out because of the motivation for this one Hub, or focus.  This is just one example of how I learned through my High School years."

Friday, September 18, 2015

Ripple effects in learning

In education, learning about one topic has a ripple effect across all spheres of knowledge. 
As advocates of unschooling, we don't push students to learn specific subjects separately from each other. The underlying assumption in unschooling is that nothing exists in a vacuum, and when you set out to learn one thing you end up learning many different "subjects" along the way. One of our students was learning about Geography and along with studying where in the world things are, she also studied what is happening in those places. Here is what she had to say about what she learned along the way. 

"In Geography, one of the topics I covered was global phenomena and it dealt with a variety of things such as the plight of refugees. This brought to my attention how many refugees there are here and across the world seeking a safe place to live. This made me realize how grateful I am for having a place to call my home. Irrespective of what culture, race, or country we come from, we all want the same things in life like safety, love and acceptance. This made me think that all current affairs around the world have a ripple effect, like throwing a pebble in a pond. If something happens in one country, although it is far away from your own country, you may still be affected by it." 

For a teenager to view current affairs worldwide as having a ripple effect that eventually effects her is an incredible insight to have. She learned so much more than where a country is in the world, or any other bland facts about it. She really delved into what is going on with people in other places. Even when the situations there aren't very pretty. 

She's had a profound realization of unity in the world. Everywhere in the world, people want the same basic things. Perhaps that realization will also lead to an understanding that what she herself does also has a ripple effect around the world. As Mother Theresa said "I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples."

Friday, September 11, 2015

A peek into Homeschooling in Romania

There is an active and growing population of families choosing to opt out of the Romanian school system. We are thrilled to be able to support families all around the world with making the educational choice that best suits them. We thought it would be fun to give you a glimpse into what homeschooling looks like for this family in Romania. Here's an excerpt from their year-end report. 

"I’m very happy with the progress he’s made with his Reading skills. For the moment, he reads in Romanian, very well for his age, but he can also manage short simple English sentences. 
There’s not much to say about Writing skills, as he cannot be bothered with it. He knows how to write, but has no need to do so, apart for the occasional birthday card. Obviously, he types anything he needs to for his games.

English is another subject where there’s been great progress, mainly due to the fact that in the past few months he has discovered YouTube and he spends hours watching videos of his favorite games. I’d never have thought it possible to learn English this way, but he has become quite confident and he talks in English a lot. Amazingly, he’s started to speak Romanian with an English accent! I’ve downloaded some school books to use next year, so he can learn some basic grammar rules (which I’m sure he’ll find quite boring).

Mathematics is the only subject where we tried to go by the book and he’s made his way through several books of additions/subtractions, which he can do quite easily, so he has acquired more than the skills required for 1st grade. We also tried multiplication and division, but we have to work on this part next year. (We also use several Internet sites for Math).

For the past year, Science studies consisted mainly of a Chemistry/Physics class he was enrolled in. It’s a government subsidized learning center for kids, which offers a lot of different classes. The Chemistry class was quite hard, covering stuff that school children only learn in 5th grade and beyond, but everything is explained in simple terms with lots of fun experiments, to make science appealing to seven years old kids. And we had a final test, too, which he passed. So we’re good, as far as Science is concerned. 

At the same center, he took a very interesting course combining History and Crafts. They studied mostly Ancient History and at each lesson they also crafted some object relevant for that particular period, a cardboard Roman shield, an Egyptian pyramid and so on. We also read several books concerning Ancient History, some of them in English. So that’s Social Studies for us.

He also studied French at the center, but I cannot really say that he’s learned much. A few words, some songs and not much else. We’ll probably have to find some other program, something more fun. Anyway, these classes have been very useful as they gave him some sort of going to school experience and he got to make some friends, temporary, as most friends are at this age. It also helped me put my mind at ease on the controversial subject of socializing and HS."

Jacqueline ~ Romania

There is a mother who is a homeschooling advocate in Romania through her blog, and who is our local contact for our Romanian families. You can visit her blog here

For our native Romanian readers, here is the year-end report in the Romanian language. 

"Sper ca ai avut un an (scolar) bun. Noi cu siguranta am avut. Iata, pe scurt, ce a invatat baiatul meu, P., in primul lui an de homeschooling.

In esenta, s-a descurcat de minune. Noi nu folosim vreo programa anume, dar incerc sa acoperim cumva toate materiile relevante. (Am oroare de programe scolare ca urmare a experientei avute cu fata, care a fost timp de opt ani in invatamintul public si a avut de invatat pe de rost tone de lucruri inutile, din categoria celor pe care le uiti de indata ce ai luat nota la materia respectiva).
Revenind la baiatul cel mic, ma bucur sa-ti spun ca a facut progrese majore la citit. La ora actuala, citeste in romana foarte bine pentru varsta lui, dar se descurca si sa citeasca propozitii mai simple in engleza.

Despre scris nu prea am ce sa spun, pentru ca nu prea il intereseaza subiectul. Stie sa scrie, dar nu prea are nevoie sa o faca, doar cite o felicitare ocazional. Evident, se descurca sa tasteze orice are nevoie la jocurile lui.

Engleza este o alta materie la care a inregistrat mari progrese, mai ales datorita faptului ca in ultimele luni a descoperit YouTube si petrece ore in sir uitindu-se la materiale video despre jocurile lui favorite. Nu mi-as fi imaginat vreodata ca este posibil sa inveti engleza in acest mod, dar fapt este ca a prins curaj si vorbeste mult in engleza. Cel mai uimitor este faptul ca inceput sa vorbeasca si romaneste cu accent englezesc! Am descarcat recent o serie de manual de engleza pe care intentionez sa le parcurgem in noul an scolar, astfel incit sa poate invata si ceva reguli de gramatica, desi sunt sigura ca o sa i se para tare plictisitoare.

Matematica este singura materie pe care am incercat sa o studiem ca la carte si am parcurs impreuna mai multe culegeri cu adunari si scaderi, pe care le rezolva cu usurinta, astfel ca este deja peste nivelul cerut la clasa intii. Am incercat si ceva inmultiri si impartiri, dar este un subiect asupra caruia va trebui sa insistam anul urmator. (De asemenea, folosim si diverse site-uri de Internet pentru matematica. )

La capitolul stiinte, anul trecut baiatul a fost inscris la un curs de chimie/fizica organizat la Palatul Copiilor, unde sunt o multime de cursuri interesante. Cursul de chimie a fost unul foarte serios, cu materie pe care la scoala copiii o parcurg abia in clasa a 5a sau dupa, dar totul le era explicat in termeni simpli, cu multe experimente distractive, astfel incit lectiile sa fie atractive pentru copii de sapte ani. Am avut si un test final, pe care P. l-a trecut cu bine. Asa ca stam bine la capitolul stiinte.
Tot la Palatul Copiilor, P. a fost inscris si la un curs care imbina istoria cu lucrul manual. Au studiat cu precadere istoria antica si la fiecare lectie copiii realizau si un obiect relevant pentru perioada studiata, un scut roman din carton, o piramida egipteana si asa mai departe. Am citit, de asemenea, mai multe carti despre antichitate, unele in engleza. In acest fel am acoperit noi stiinte sociale.
In acelasi loc, a mers si la curs de franceza, dar n-as putea spune ca a invatat foarte mult. O serie de cuvinte, ceva cintecele si cam atit. Cred ca va trebui sa cautam un alt program de limbi straine, ceva mai distractiv.

In tot cazul, cursurile acestea au fost foarte utile pentru ca i-au oferit copilului un fel de experienta a mersului la scoala si si-a facut si ceva prieteni, temporari, asa cum sunt toti prietenii la aceasta virsta. In plus, asta m-a ajutat si pe mine sa-mi domolesc temerile referitoare la controversatul subiect al socializarii copiilor care practica homeschooling."

Jacqueline ~ Romania