Friday, September 22, 2017

Homeschooling in Pennsylvania

Before we began our homeschooling journey JT was a student in our local public school. There were many issues during those years and I often ended up in conflict with the district. When we decided to leave the district we moved to a public cyber-charter school for two years before we finally found our place as homeschoolers. Since becoming homeschoolers, we have had little interaction with our district and no conflict. Lately I have been hearing from some homeschoolers in other districts that are running into serious issues with their schools and I realize how conflict free our years have been.

If you are considering homeschooling in Pennsylvania, I would highly recommend familiarizing yourself with the PA homeschool regulations. People who have homeschooled in states other than PA often find our regulations to be too strict. Maybe that is true, but because I have never worked under another system, I don't feel that way. Knowing the regs helps me to feel confident in my rights and be aware of what I need to do to satisfy the requirements.

I am thankful to work under a district that has never asked for more than I have provided. In the situations I have been reading about in the PA homeschool Facebook page, many parents are reporting districts that are requesting far more than is required by the regulations. Many times those districts seem to have little knowledge of the regs. Suggestions were made to attempt to educate the districts in a non-confrontational way. But my own experience working to educate the 'experts', from the days when we were sending our son to public school, tells me that they will probably meet much resistance in that attempt. For those parents, I can only say, know the regs, try to be factual when discussing issues with the district, look for help from homeschooling legal organizations, and stand your ground. When parents give in to districts' demands for compliance to their own rules versus the legal guidelines, other parents find it harder to resist these extraneous requests.

As someone who finds rules made for no good reason infuriating and people who push their own ideas of the 'right way to do things' down my throat the most irritating people to deal with, I feel the anxiety and frustration these families are dealing with in their situations. One mom told how the school had sent an attendance officer to her home because she hadn't filed paperwork for her son to homeschool. The son is not yet of compulsory school age, so she is well within her rights not having submitted the forms. When she wasn't at home for the visit, the officer left a business card in her mailbox, a clear violation of federal law! As I read about this, I wanted to march down to her district and slap a copy of the regs on someone's desk. Many made comments on the post with advice to sign up with homeschooling legal groups for help. However, the mom expressed her resistance to do so since the group recommended had a system of beliefs she did not follow. She seemed so sure and in control as she shared how she planned to deal with the district's improper requests. I was happy to see someone so confident ready to fight for her rights, and in a way, my own.

It is good to be a member of a tribe that works as one to protect our right to educate our children in whatever way works best for each us. If you are dealing with issues in your own district, remember to reach out to your community. And remember that your fight is not your own. It is ours together.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Why Can't More People Be Non-Conformists?

JT is wrapping up his third week of his community college classes with a nasty virus. We assumed he was exposed at school and had near certain verification when a girl sitting next to him in math class last night told him she had been sick with the same mess for the last week. Assuming she was the source of the initial contact, we are speculating three things: it's airborne, has about a week incubation, and we are all doomed to sickness in the next seven days.

As homeschoolers we have gone against the norm for years in many ways. One of those ways is that if we see any sign of sickness we cancel activities and stay home to stop the spread of infection. I always felt this was common courtesy. I found it ridiculous that schools expected kids to come to school when contagious. I thought work places where working through sickness was required to be brutal to both the sick and the soon to be sick. I have always believed that workplaces encourage vaccination for the flu not because they are concerned for the health of their employees but for their bottom line. Because my husband works from home, unless he is in bed with a sickness, he can safely work without dragging his germs with him to share with co-workers.

But now, we have a problem. JT is attending three college classes this year. The instructors handle attendance in a variety of ways. One instructor wants a doctor's excuse for absences. So, sickness that is contagious, but not warranting a doctor visit, is no excuse to stay home. Now everyone can get sick instead. Am I just weird to consider this utterly ridiculous? I guess it is if you define weird as a logical thinker who doesn't stand a chance against the work-your-butt-off-despite-sickness-or-you-are-not-a-good-American-citizen standard we all live under. JT first felt sick Wednesday evening, with full-blown sore throat, chills, and severe congestion by Thursday morning. He had two classes on the schedule for the day, Art Appreciation at 1:15 and Survey of Math at 6pm. I suggested he contact his art teacher, tell her he'd be out sick, and ask what was going to be covered in class. He did that and she gave him the information. But he was going to have to attend math class because they were having a test. I had him stuff his pockets with tissues, take a Sudafed, and sent him on his way. I couldn't help but feel guilty for putting him out there to spread this to more victims. But hey, America!

There are many times I wish we lived in a more primitive time. Back in the day when snow forced things to come to a stop, when sunset meant it was time to sleep and dawn meant the start of a day, when sickness was a sign that you should stop and let your body heal. Sure those days had many bigger problems, but every now and then I'd just like to be able to feel like the pace of life could be more in line with what I aim to create in our home. I just want to have time to stop and smell the roses... with no nasal congestion.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Favorite Things

Mommy Fuel
I was looking around our classroom recently, thinking about the items I use most often to make our learning experience a success, and thought I should write a post to share some of them. Maybe these are things you are already using as a homeschooler and maybe they are things you can add to make your homeschooling better.


Number one ingredient of successful homeschooling in my life? Coffee. A great quantity of coffee has fuelled our homeschooling years.


classroom 2009
classroom 2014

Many homeschoolers spend their days at a kitchen table, or moving about the house to find a place to work. When we first made the decision to homeschool, we decided to add an addition on the house with a dedicated space for homeschooling.


white board
When we first built the classroom, we used chalkboard paint on a large portion of one wall. I quickly found that the chalk dust was getting out of control in our new room. My parents bought a large white board for us and we installed in over the chalkboard paint. The white board has been an essential part of our daily routine since the beginning. We've used it for almost every subject, practice for spelling tests, drawing for fun, and I use it for my planning. The giant surface is great for laying out the plans for next year each summer.

classroom map
I love looking at maps. We have two large maps in our classroom, one world and one USA. We also have a map of the National Parks. There are numerous atlases and books of other maps on our shelves as well. I keep an atlas in each car, even in this world of GPS, Google maps, and Siri.  And everyone knows all of the best books have a map in the front cover. The boys have used our maps many times over the years for both school work and just to satisfy their curiosity.

note the presence of coffee

Our printer has been an essential part of our school for the boys. I have made countless copies of things I found on the Internet; tests I made on Easytestmaker, Thinkwell worksheets, BrainPOP quizzes, to name a few. We've used it for art projects, reports, and in JT's board game designing years. Most important, we've used it to create the portfolios that were not only necessary to meet Pennsylvania's homeschool regulations, but also to have a record of our schooling, that the boys will be able to keep and enjoy when they are older.

just a few books
Finally, the most important tool we use in homeschooling is our books. Last count there was something in the neighborhood of 1,100 books in this house. Not all are used specifically for homeschooling, but the presence of this quantity of books shows how essential they are to our daily lives. The boys and I don't go a day without reading from a book. I am so glad that they have inherited my love for reading.


We enjoy using all of the tools we have for homeschooling, but if all we had was access to a library, nothing else would be necessary to gain a complete education.



Friday, September 1, 2017

The New Routine

Our 2017-2018 school year is now in full swing. We usually start our year in July, slowly working our way up to full time schooling. With the start of JT's college classes on Monday, we are now working with a packed schedule.

My week looks like this:

Monday
      JT's Wellness & Nutrition class 9:45-11:10 (35 min drive each way)
      Piano lesson 11:30-12:30
      Home again for a few hours of work with EM
      Fencing for JT 7pm-8:30pm (30 min drive each way)

Tuesday
     Every other week, 10:30-12pm JT's private music theory class (45 min drive)
     JT's Art Appreciation class 1:15-2:30 (35 min drive home)
     Work at home with EM

Wednesday
     JT's Wellness & Nutrition 9:45-11:10
     JT to library for volunteering, 1-4pm
     Bible class at church 7pm

Thursday
     JT's Art Appreciation class 1:15-2:30
     Home for work with EM
     JT's Survey of Mathematics 6pm-8:45pm

Friday
    EM's homeschool gym class 10:00-11:30 (35 min drive each way)
    Lots of work at home together, American History for both with me

Again this year, I spend a great deal of time driving. The plan had been for JT to have his license by now, but we haven't done enough driving instruction to get him to the point that he can take his test for the license. In PA, you need to wait 6 months after receiving the permit to even apply to take the test. He also needs to log 60 hours of driving practice. Hopefully by the spring semester he will have that license. Then I will have more time to work at home with EM. Luckily he's the kind of kid who will work independently when I'm not there. It's also fortunate that his dad works from home so someone is there with him when he has questions.

In order to save me some driving time, we are allowing JT to hang out at the school between his classes on Thursday. That is freeing me up to come home and work with EM. On Thursday, JT finished his first class at 2:30, then walked 6 blocks to Wendy's to eat his early dinner. He spent about 30 minutes there, then walked back to the school and read until his evening class started. This might not seem like a big deal, but it's a new experience for him. We live in a rural area, so JT hasn't had much opportunity to walk in a city and find his way around. Earlier in the week, we walked to the Wendy's together so he knew where to go. One of the intersections is especially busy, so I was a bit worried about him. Yes, I know he's 16, but it's something new for all of us, so don't judge. Everything went smoothly for him and I was happy to not need to make a second drive to the school that day. We will continue with the same plan as long as the weather permits. Hopefully we'll have mild weather through the end of the semester in December. If not, I'll go back to my excessive driving routine. Or maybe, if things work out, he'll be a licensed driver by then. I'll just have something new to worry about then...

Friday, August 25, 2017

Coolest Field Trip Ever

Diamond Ring Effect





Our family joined the millions of other people heading to the band of totality for the Great American Eclipse. Traffic was horrendous both there and back, but we'd do it again in a minute. Even though I took pictures, including the one above to remember the day, nothing can compare to the moment the sun was completely covered and things went dark.

We left our home in Central PA early Saturday morning, destination Gatlinburg, Tennessee. On a usual day, the drive would take about 9-10 hours. Before we even got to Virginia we hit slowing traffic. Even using some alternate routes, our trip ended up taking 14 hours. It was especially irritating since we had planned to cook dinner at the house we rented instead of paying to eat out.


Sunday morning we went to an early church service, ate a quick lunch, then JT and I went out to hike the Jump Off trail in Smoky Mountain National Park. The hike was listed as moderate, but it was certainly a challenge for me. This Jump Off is reached by hiking from the Newfound Gap parking area on the Appalachian Trail, about 2 miles, taking the Boulevard Trail, then the Jump Off trail. The trail is a steady 1,275 foot climb over approximately 3 miles to the end of the trail at 6,000 feet. We ran into a couple coming down who said, "It's rough, but it's worth it. I've never seen anything like it!" Boy was he right!

The view was stunning. You could walk right up to the edge of a sheer drop off. When we got to the top, JT says, "Maybe you don't know, but I'm afraid of heights."
Oops.

So I stood close to the edge to take pictures while he stood back a bit and told me I was standing too close. It felt like a serious role reversal. Another young man was up there taking pictures when we arrived and he said he was waiting on friends behind him to catch up. I was feeling all proud of myself for being a middle-aged, chubby woman able to get up on the mountain, that is, until his friends arrived. One was a 20 something girl, wearing a skirt, and a BABY! Suddenly, I didn't feel quite so amazing. She won that trophy for sure!

The total hike is about 6.25 miles, there and back, and we did it in 4 hours. I felt that was pretty good time considering the difficulty of the trail and the fact that I had a minor ankle injury going into it. We thought that gave us a pretty good idea of our ability and speed for our future hiking.

The next day was the one we were waiting for... eclipse 2017! We were staying in Gatlinburg, but planned to travel to the other side of the mountain to the Oconaluftee visitor center in the North Carolina portion of the Smoky Mountain National Park. The weather forecast was calling for the chance of a thunderstorm during the eclipse hour, so I was feeling a bit worried that our day would be ruined. As we drove through the park, we saw loads of people camped out in every parking area facing the direction the sun would be for the eclipse. We were driving around 10am, eclipse time was 2:30, and every parking lot was full! We chose our location because we would have things to do while waiting and access to restrooms and drinks. We parked in the lot, took a short walk, did a little shopping in the visitor center shop, ate lunch, and set up our cameras.

I used the lens from one of the solar eclipse glasses to cover my camera lens and take pictures leading up to the totality. Not exactly high-tech, but it did the job well. The only problem was that my camera likes to close the lens when it's been inactive for a minute, so someone had to take a picture every 60 seconds to keep the tape out of my retracting lens. I spent the next hour or so tracking the sun with the camera and waiting for the big moment.

At one point I went to the edge of the field to find some trees to look for an effect I had read about online. The shadows of the leaves would have little crescents from the eclipse. A large group of high school students had come in busses to the park. They were all sitting in the shade of the trees. When I found what I was looking for, I showed the kids who were sitting there. They were excited to see it. Suddenly, I was in the role of teacher. I wondered where their teachers were and why they weren't sharing this with the students. Funny how as a homeschool mom, it just seems natural to me to point out the cool things to any available kid.

Finally the moment we were waiting for arrived. We all agreed it was the most incredible thing we ever experienced. The park set off an airhorn when it was safe to remove our glasses during the totality and again when it was time to put them back on. It felt far too short. I wanted to continue to see this amazing moment. As soon as it started to get light out again, people started packing up and leaving. I thought that was funny since the other half of the eclipse would continue for quite some time. We stayed and continued taking pictures for nearly the entire event. Driving back to the cabin, I would open the sun roof on the van and look at the sun with my glasses to see when it was fully over.

As far as our homeschooling goes... did we take this trip as part of our homeschooling plan? Yes and no. EM is studying Earth Science this year and that does include a unit of astronomy. An eclipse fits perfectly for that purpose. But when I planned this trip, I did not plan for it to be part of 'schooling'. Our lives are just geared towards doing things like that because we enjoy learning new things. We like having new experiences. Homeschooling doesn't have to be so structured that every activity that even seems educational gets documented and called schooling. Learning should be a daily activity for every person, homeschooler or not.



Friday, August 18, 2017

Assigning Grades

Now that EM is a high school student, possibly enrolling in PHAA's diploma program, I feel obligated to grade his work. Until now I only graded his spelling tests. He also received grades when doing quizzes and tests in the Thinkwell math courses he took. Now I need to assign a grade for all of his subjects that will be on a transcript. Receiving grades makes our homeschooling environment a little different than usual.

In the past when EM completed work, if there were mistakes, we would work together to figure out why he got something wrong, then he would make corrections, or have additional assignments, until he understood whatever concept was being taught. Now things feel more final when he completes an assignment. I know we can still redo work that he has trouble understanding, but it just feels different. For example, last week he completed a lesson in grammar with a worksheet/quiz that I wanted to grade. He had problems with the assignment, with quite a few errors. Because of that, I assigned an online activity, covering some core concepts that would help him understand what he did wrong with the first assignment. He completed the online work perfectly. Now as a teacher in a traditional setting, I wouldn't change anything about that initial graded assignment. As a homeschooling mom, I want to reward him for figuring it out and give him a better grade.

What is the correct way to handle this?

I can see that a traditional teacher would have far too many students to customize their learning and allow them to work towards mastery in the same way that I can with my one child. It's just not feasible. But shouldn't I take advantage of my special circumstances and allow that? Is that somehow cheating the system? Does grading school work really show us how a student is doing? Does it encourage students to work harder? Learn more?

I guess it would be a good idea for me to figure all of that out before I grade any more work from EM. I'll add that to my list of things to do when we get home from our eclipse trip. I'll tell you all about it next week!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Attaining Expert Status

I am a member of a Pennsylvania homeschooling group on Facebook. Just about every day a mom, usually new to homeschooling, posts a question, and more often than not, I realize I know the answer. Sometimes it's a question I remember asking all those years ago when I was new to the world of schooling at home. Many times it's something I struggled to find on my own before I was fully plugged into the homeschooling community. I often comment on these posts with things I have learned or links to sites that I found helpful. After helping one mom I realized I am no longer new to this, in fact, I may now be an expert.

I know it has been debunked with a study, but I still hold to Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour theory when it comes to defining an expert. If I count 8 years of homeschooling, 180 days each, for approximately 8 hours a day, I'm well over that threshold. The thing about being an expert in this particular facet of life is that no two homeschooling lives are the same. So even if I am an expert here in my own home, that makes my realm of expertise very narrow. For example, my two boys are very different personalities with very different learning styles. So even within my own home my expertise is often useless. Out there in the larger community, the place where I can help most of the time is with questions concerning regulations. Pennsylvania is considered by some to be a heavily regulated homeschooling state. I have never really felt that myself, but then again, I have never homeschooled in another state to see the difference.

When I start thinking about all the time I have invested in homeschooling, it makes me wonder if this investment is going to pay off. Why spend all of this time if it won't be worth it? While I still can't see if their years of homeschooling will allow the boys to be successful in the sense of employment or financial gain, there are some more intangible benefits I can see they have received by spending their childhoods this way.

First, they had so much more freedom at home than they would have in any traditional school setting. Their schedules were not rigid, no one dictated the most basic things in their day, such as when they can use the bathroom. They also had the freedom to learn what they found interesting. While we did attempt to cover the things most kids cover in school, I tried to make sure to spend considerable time on their interests, as well as to allow them enough free time to explore those interests independently.

They also were free from the more negative aspects of spending time with peers. Now before anyone freaks out and cries, 'But... socialization?!' My boys spent plenty of time with other kids their age, kids of other ages, and adults of all ages. They were involved in our church, basketball, scouts for a time, homeschool groups, book clubs, fencing clubs, on and on and on... So they had plenty of socialization. What they didn't have was bullying, peer pressure,and the majority of their time spent with people their own age. I believe that their self-esteem has been preserved when that outcome would have been questionable in a public school setting. Both of my boys are quirky, geeky, interested in odd things boys who don't always dress like the crowd. They would more than likely have been targets of abuse and suffered in that environment. 

Yes, there were also things they missed out on by being at home, but overall, the benefits have outweighed the negatives. I am thankful that I have the ability to spend the time I have homeschooling. Becoming an expert in this has been well worth the effort.