Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Kids learn: Homeschooling

Really. They do. Even, maybe especially, when you're not trying to "teach" them. I just heard my seven-year-old tell my ten-year-old "we need to max out our chao's running stats." I'm not sure what that means -- it's a video game thing -- but I'm sure he knows what it means. They're both smart kids, and if they don't understand something, they either ask or they research it themselves. Right now, that video game happens to be their obsession, and they're burning up YouTube's stock of tutorial videos on how to beat it (while starting to talk about making some videos of their own about it -- they both got cameras for Christmas).

We've been homeschooling Liam (seven) for a year now. Daniel (ten) just decided to take the plunge (we've always encouraged the idea, but he had to make the decision on his own -- he really liked the "social" aspects of "public" school until the down sides became burdensome).

I started the homeschooling thing with the idea that I needed a very specific curriculum. I made Liam miserable for several months with daily worksheet assignments and such to build the "portfolio" and flesh out the logs required by our state's laws. I'm still doing battle with those record-keeping requirements, but over time we've shifted toward, and are now in the process of fully adopting, the "unschooling" approach.

I just procured a copy of Mary Griffith's The Unschooling Handbook, and it's already proving enormously useful in terms of helping me get over the panic aspect of not having a set-in-stone plan for each day.

I haven't given up "goals" and "lessons" entirely. I throw random math problems (mostly multiplication right now, but I'm looking forward to geometry -- Daniel just got a book full of skateboard ramp blueprints and is awaiting improved weather to build his first one) at them throughout the day. I purposely insert unusual words in our conversation so that we can discuss their meanings. When we decide to watch a movie, I try to find something with real historical content or a hook worth discussing in terms of some subject area. I'm also setting up some mechanisms for keeping track of what they're into online (the obsessions change -- sometimes daily, sometimes weekly) so that I can plug it into the paperwork, and expand on it offline. Within the next month or so, I expect that they'll both be blogging regularly as well.

Thing is, they're both already at or above "grade level" (as defined by the state standards) in all subjects. The curriculum approach wasn't helping them advance, and in some areas it was holding them back and boring them. The point isn't to get them ready for standardized tests, it's to get them ready for life.

They read like fiends -- when they find something they're interested in to read about. Their vocabularies are constantly expanding because when they don't understand a word it gets discussed (Tamara and I spent 20 minutes discussing the variants of "dedicated" and "dedication" with Liam the other night after he got independently interested in the difference between "dedicated server" and "this book is dedicated to ...").

Math's a little harder to work in at this point, but the "I'm trying to do this, how do I?" situations come, and when they do we show them the concepts instead of just giving them the answers. They can both add, subtract and multiply, we're starting to work on division, they've got a fair handle on fractions, and Daniel's doing some elementary algebra. Tamara and I are looking forward to having to refresh ourselves on geometry to keep up with them just for the next year or so ... and frankly I expect them to leap ahead of me and require outside help in the not too distant future (I've forgotten most of trig and never took calculus).

Science is easy. Not only do we work everyday situations into science lessons (bathtub displacement and volume! Why does a lightbulb glow -- which kind of lightbulb? We did incandescant vs. fluorescent yesterday), but they've got constant questions of their own that turn into "lessons" learned, and they inherited the space obsession from both sides. We watched the first half of Apollo 13 last night, pausing frequently for discussion; second half tonight; then it will be on to The Right Stuff and From the Earth to the Moon, hopefully with a segue into politics and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress resulting).

And, of course, social studies is a snap. They've already had more community involvement than most adults. They've attended state and national political conventions. They've marched in numerous protests. They've canvassed for ballot issues and for their parents as candidates. On the non-political side, we make a practice of helping them buttonhole hapless victims to discuss "what do you do" with them. That will probably turn into a series of "cultural journalism" video projects in the future.

The hardest part of this whole schooling thing is staying the hell out of their way so they don't run me down.


British schools `are killing off the library', claims author

Schools are killing off children's love of books by turning libraries into literature- free 'learning resource centres', an award-winning author has claimed. They are replacing books with computers and so becoming mere 'creches' instead of places of education and excitement, said Frank Cottrell Boyce. He makes the claims in an open letter to the MP Alan Milburn, who is leading a Government drive on social mobility.

Cottrell Boyce, who won the Carnegie Medal for children's writing for his book Millions, writes: 'When I visit many schools, I see a big, fat, glaring, expensive anti-reading and pleasure signal. 'It stands where the library used to stand and it's called the learning resource centre.'

He believes reading for pleasure is central to improving the life chances of pupils from all backgrounds, and therefore raising social mobility. He points out that almost all children these days have access to computers. But far fewer 'have access to books in any meaningful way at home'. The letter is published in an email newsletter from Teachit, a website for English teachers.


Grammar revival?

What a lot of scatterbrained nonsense we read in the comment from Australia below! There is no ambiguity about the Latin-derived rules which govern written English. Why can't kids in primary and secondary schools simply be taught those rules? That's what's going to be most useful to them. Leave the airy-fairy stuff for specialist university courses

Australia is distinctive among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries for its long tail of students who are unable to process - much less understand - the texts of which English brags. And problems of access are not confined to students in low socioeconomic enclaves. Even middle-class parents find it increasingly difficult to help their children produce successful assignments in a discipline so different from the one they studied. And, so, grammar is back; hauled out of retirement to help, no, to party.

When people think "grammar", they mostly think traditional grammar. But this is a tool kit - or dance card, perhaps - for a simpler discipline. It's good on parts of speech, on subject-verb agreement and on rules, all of which are routinely broken by published authors. It has nothing whatsoever to say about newspaper headlines, Aboriginal English, the hilarious play of malapropisms in Kath and Kim or the incomprehensible genius of Vicky Pollard in her "Yeah, but, no but, yeah but". And almost anything interesting in contemporary discourse is ungrammatical in the traditional sense: it begins the wrong way, with conjunctions, splits infinitives. As far as literature is concerned, grammar has never connected well with textual matters such as focalisation, voicing, structure and plotting. A very limited repertoire.

There are other grammars available. One is functional grammar. It makes real connections with the preoccupations of English: with texts, contexts, meaning making. But it too has an image problem. First of all, it's hard: technically demanding, linguistically ambitious. Some might say the dance moves are too difficult for the informal partygoer.

Those calling for a return to grammar are not talking about a new grammar but the old version, tarted up perhaps, but largely unreconstructed. Traditional grammar is simply not up to the job and, for now, functional grammar is out of favour. Any grammar that is going to work has a big challenge on its hands. Can we develop a grammar adequate to an ambitious curriculum, akin to the television program So You Think You Can Dance?

Four parameters come to mind. First, there is the matter of stretch. Any grammatical tool kit for exploring the features of complex texts requires flexibility. The authors of the Initial Advice Paper on the national English curriculum are unequivocal on the need to engage with complex texts. They are requiring that teachers develop systematic understandings about "the structures, interpretation and the effects of certain features in multimodal texts". This means picture books, websites, graphic novels and films, as well as traditional literature such as the novel. It requires a grammar that encompasses study of a wide range of textual choices and their combined effects on meaning, a real stretch.

Second, there is the matter of discipline in the study of language. The notion of "deep knowledge" has become a familiar adage in discussions about school learning. But what does this mean for knowledge about language at text, sentence and word levels? This is the remit of the national curriculum: systematic and explicit teaching about language as a system. There is work to be done if kindergarten teachers are to share understandings about language with primary and secondary English teachers. This task takes us well beyond the comforting mediocrity of "grammar at the point of need", a rigorous routine of new moves for alldancers.

Third, there is the matter of improved performance: making knowledge accountable to those we teach, especially students without start-up cultural capital. Any study of grammar must enable students to read and write more effectively. The national curriculum advice is clear on the need to inter-relate learning about and learning to use language. There is much we don't yet know. Recent research undertaken by education academic at the University of Hull, Richard Andrews, and his colleagues in Britain reveals that assumed links between knowledge about grammar and improved writing remain unproven. The jury is still out about whether grammar helps students with literacy. Such research is crucial if we are to improve the literacy performances of students.

Fourth, there is the matter of potential: seeing the possibilities in our students' communicative practices. If we accept, as Michael Halliday, emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney, has suggested, that language is "a resource for making meanings", then our grammars must become attuned not just to problems but also to (often surprising) developments in students' uses of language. This orientation is alert to the promise in a first draft, to a deconstructive cartoon, the subversion in an impromptu class performance. Our young people are doing such clever things in their out-of-school literacy practices. Any grammar that is going to lead development in new routines has to follow as well as lead in these new dances. Are we up to it? Do we think we can dance?


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