Thursday, March 31, 2011

Outsourcing Learning

In a recent post, I wrote about providing the boys with foreign language instruction. This week we went for our sample TPRS Spanish class. I think we have found the perfect match for our learning needs.

TPRS, Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling, is not the method for you IF you want to learn a language in the typical classroom setting. We will not be conjugating verbs or filling in worksheets. The class began with our teacher showing us a list of words and phrases she would be using in the lesson. After telling us the meanings and pronunciations of the words, she moved on to the gestures that would go with each word. Some of these were common ASL signs. Some were gestures and some were even sounds. For example, lobo (wolf) was a howl.

Now that we were armed with our gestures, she began the story. As she told the story, any time we heard a word on the list, we were to do the appropriate gesture. This quickly became a lot of fun. The boys especially liked it when they had opportunity to act out ¡Comé mucho! (eats a lot). When the story had ended, our teacher starting asking Spanish. The boys were easily able to answer using the gestures and sometimes speaking the correct words.

There was just enough silliness involved to make every word memorable. The pictures in this post come from the poster sized sheet of paper she sent home with us. Even though we were given no formal assignments, JT has been using his new vocabulary and working to construct his own sentences from what he already knows.

I'm still on the fence as to whether both boys will take the class. EM is not as interested and did cause some distraction during the lesson. We are waiting for a week or two to see if we can drum up a few more students for the class. And if you are worried about the absence of formal language instruction, remember that when you learned your primary language, you probably didn't start conjugating verbs until you were well into your elementary years. We can get to those parts of the language later.

I found something else this week that really has me excited. The Khan Academy. I think this teaching website is incredible. After watching the creator, Salman Khan, giving a TED Talk about how he got started, I couldn't wait to try it out. Originally it began as math videos Sal had made and posted on YouTube to help tutor his cousins from a distance. As more people stumbled upon these instructional movies and made positive comments, he realized he had an opportunity to help many who were struggling with math.

I had been looking into the possibility of signing JT up to use either ALEKS math or IXL next year. I started to feel that he might benefit from a more self-directed math study. In the middle of my indecision over which was the better choice, I read a message through the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum about Khan Academy. Not only does it seem more in line with what I'm looking's also FREE! The tracking tools for teachers are phenomenal. The students can earn points and 'badges' as they move through the different lessons. This particular feature really appeals to my little gamers. The only drawback I can see is that if you want to track your progress, you must log in with either a Google ID or a Facebook account. I reluctantly set my kids up with Google accounts so they can make use of this wonderful site.

I love having access to such excellent learning tools. There are just so many rich opportunities out there...I'm starting to wonder if twelve years with these boys will even be enough to scratch the surface of what we can do together.

Friday, March 25, 2011

What We Aren't Doing This Week

This is the time of year when public school students in Pennsylvania sit quietly with their No. 2 pencils and show what they have learned. At least, that's the idea behind the PSSAs. I personally think these tests are a waste of time for students and teachers. The schools must spend countless hours preparing for these multiple choice tests...reviewing memorized facts that show little of what a child has really learned during their school year. It all comes down to a couple days of testing that might give us some idea of what they really know.

As homeschoolers in PA, we are not taking standardized tests this week, because we are not required to do so.

But don't think that means we do not on occasion assess our progress. In fact, I may assess our progress a little more fanatically than is really necessary. As a homeschooling mom, you operate under the fear that you might just be missing something essential that your children need to be learning. Strangers in the grocery store may quiz your children on the gross domestic product of Botswana at any given time! We must be ready to defend our claims that our children will not grow up to be deadbeats!

When I start worrying about those kinds of things, I try to sit back and look at the big picture. Are each of my children making progress in their learning? Are there any subjects where they really seem to struggle? Is it my methods that are causing this struggle or are they maybe just not developmentally ready for a certain concept?

Focusing on the larger issues can really help me decide if our schooling is working. When I find a problem area, I look for ways to fix it. It doesn't mean we are 'failing', it just means we are ALL learning through this process. Most often the problems come when I start worrying about the way others will perceive my progress.

This week, I contacted our home school evaluator to let her know our projected last day of school so we could schedule our year end evaluation. Per PA regulations, we must log 180 days of schooling. When those days have been completed, we will meet with our evaluator to show her our portfolios for the year and discuss what we have done in those 180 days. Deciding what to put in the portfolio is difficult for me. Do I want to include only their absolute best work in the record? Do I want to throw in a few, not so perfect pages to show that I haven't chosen ONLY the best work? As recommended by most sources, I am planning to pull out a sample for each required subject from the beginning, middle and end of the school year.

I know I am probably over thinking this whole thing. Our evaluator is very laid back. I don't think she will be too concerned about the papers I have thrown into that binder. What she will really pay attention to will be what the boys say about their school year. What was the favorite book they read this year? What kinds of experiments did they do for science? What subject was the most exciting for them?

These are the kinds of questions you just can't answer by filling in a bubble on a test sheet...and I think they are the only ones really worth answering.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


The ugly specter of socialization reared its head this week.

JT walked into the kitchen at bedtime and said, "You know, the problem with homeschooling is that the kids don't get much of a chance to socialize with other kids."


I want it to be known, that both of the boys are active in Cub Scouts, Upward Basketball, the youth group at our church, chess club...being in the vicinity of other kids is not the issue. The issue is finding someone who is a member of your tribe.

I recently became enamoured with the blog, Un-Schooled. The post, Being friends with older people, really hit home with me. As a homeschooling mom, I wonder how our boys will develop close friendships when they might not have the same volume of exposure to kids of their own age. But then I find blogs written by people like Kate and I am reassured that they won't end up as reclusive old men. However, his comment in the kitchen made me think he may need a little help in forming a connection with someone.

In a moment of synchronicity, my friend Annie from Learn at Every Turn, sent me an email this week asking if my son JT and her son Landry could start an email correspondence. My husband and I had just decided that week to allow JT to have an email account. Up until now, we hadn't wanted to deal with the potential problems it could bring about. So, JT began his first official internet friendship. He is loving every minute of it! The boys are sending programming code back and forth to modify a simple number guessing game. They are sharing links and pictures of their pets.

At first, I spent a lot of time wishing JT could find a close friend who is also close geographically. But you know what? My closest friends are spread out across the country. I have very few close friends who live near enough to visit physically. Sure, I have plenty of acquaintances from the area...but other than my husband, none of them are a perfect fit for me. With the world getting smaller and smaller thanks to the internet and easy travel, I believe it might become old-fashioned to even have friends in close proximity. In the same way that the neighborhoods of the days when mom was home all day and dad went off to the office have become extinct...our idea of friendships may change. Maybe homeschoolers will be the ones most ready to adapt.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

...Still I Love Technology *

Tonight we have a guest blogger here at Homegrown Minds. Because I am NOT a computer expert, I have out-sourced the programming instruction to someone much better qualified. Please welcome our principal and technology guru... Daddy!

Some of my best memories from childhood involve computers. That probably sounds pitiful to anyone who is even a mere decade younger than me, because computers had already become common in school, the workplace and the home by the 1990's. To today's twenty-somethings, hearing that my best memories involved computers probably sounds as exciting as saying my best memories involved watching television, but exciting is exactly what it was.

During the late 1970's/early 80's, a computer in the house was probably less common than even say, a ham radio. My parents were a generation older than the parents of virtually all of my friends, so it was very unlikely that we would have ever had a computer in the house at all if it hadn't been for dumb chance. The simple chance of living next to a computer science professor, and being friends with his son, afforded me an opportunity I otherwise never would have had. By playing with my friend at his house, where the latest computers were being tinkered with, I witnessed first-hand the infancy and evolution of the home computer. Better still, I got to tinker with them myself. The fascination and passion have lasted my whole life. Like any parent, I want to pass on those things for which I have a passion. The older daughter, of whom I am proud, is still a PC gamer, so I can't drop the ball with JT and EM. It's so much easier to learn about computers as a child today, so how could I not give them the same opportunity?

JT began a few months ago by using Alice. He picked it up very quickly, and that same afternoon had created an animated story that he played over and over for us and anyone that came within ten feet. Then he would add more to the program, rinse, and repeat. We could see right away that Alice was a good start, but knew that its overly juvenile atmosphere was going to wear thin soon. We looked at Scratch, but it was similar to Alice and seemed to be targeted towards an even younger audience... which is fine. We'll most likely be using it to introduce concepts to EM. Then my wife found a book called Hello World!, by Warren Sande and his son Carter. What is not to like about a computer book by a father and son team?

Hello World! uses a scripting language called Python to teach programming because, A) it's fairly easy, B) it runs on most common platforms, and C) it costs nothing to download and use. I like the style of the book. Those "Idiot's guide to ABC" and "XYZ for Dummies" titles are not exactly a boost to your confidence. This book is a well done beginner's guide, without being insulting. A nifty touch was that the author had his son, a child, as proof reader. If something didn't make sense to Carter, then he put in extra notes and tips to explain it better. The writing gets the point across, but still manages to be lighthearted and entertaining, with comical illustrations any 5th grader (or their father) would enjoy. The feel of the book brings back the same feeling I got as a kid going through the Introduction to the Apple //e program, which was the first time I saw that computer programmers can express their sense of humor through their programs.

When I was a software developer, I was always learning something new because the field changes constantly. Sometimes this meant buying a book and teaching myself. Sometimes I didn't even have a book, I was just hacking away and figuring it out. In my opinion, this is the best way to learn something. For this reason, my approach with JT is to let him approach it himself, with his book, pretty much on his own. He can move forward at his own pace, trying out the instructions and exercises in the book as he goes. At the end of each chapter, I quiz him to make sure he's getting it. As he moves through each chapter I answer any questions that come up, and if he gets stuck, I'll help him debug his programs. If I find the bug, he has to do ten push-ups, so I always ask him if he's sure he has checked his code thoroughly. All that physical exercise will help to balance the mental exercise and make a sleek geek who can impress with his brain and his brawn.

I can't help but think, that here we have another example of the homeschooling advantage. If the boys were not learning at home, how much time would they spend waiting for buses, riding buses and learning to pass standardized tests? How much time will they now get to pursue independent study of their passions and interests? In so doing, they are learning how to learn - a skill so often neglected, and so rarely found.

*...always and forever...

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Foreign Language

When I first started homeschooling I had many grand plans for the diversity of topics we would cover. Three years in, I know that I will probably NEVER make it through the stack of 'cool' things I have picked up in such a short time.

One of the things I had really hoped to offer the boys, was a chance to learn a foreign language from a young age. I took Spanish from 6th-12th grade and consider myself a novice, at best. I can understand a few phrases when eavesdropping at the grocery store. I can count and list colors and ask where to find a bathroom. I really wouldn't say I am qualified to teach these kids much in this department. My husband is a bit better off than me in his knowledge of German. So, I have quickly realized, if I want them to learn a language, I will need to outsource.

I considered buying Rosetta Stone. I like the concept behind it. I think the idea of learning in a more casual way really makes sense. But I do NOT like the price.

Enter plan B.

I was reading the notice board at our public library and spotted a flyer for Spanish classes taught by my own retired middle school Spanish teacher! The bad news, was that the classes were for adults only. I decided to contact her and see if she did any classes for kids. I sent a message out to the local homeschoolers group to see if there would be interest if I managed to get her to put a class together. There was a decent response from families with children ranging from ages 5-12. When I called Senora T., she was thrilled with the idea. Then she told me about her teaching method...and I was thrilled!

She uses a method known as TPRS, Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling. I really like the concepts behind this method. Please remember that I have only read a little bit at this point, so I am by no means, an expert. Think about how your children learned their primary language...did you hand them a text book? Nope. You talked to them...saying things like, "You are such a cutie! Mommy is going to change your diaper and get you ready for bed. And then you will sleep for 9 hours and make her VERY happy!" (IN MY DREAMS!)

This method uses oral storytelling and gestures to introduce a new language. The students interact with the storyteller using key phrases they have been taught in the lesson. From what I can gather, after you have spent some time hearing the language, you start working towards reading the language. This makes perfect sense to me. When I learned English, I learned by hearing, then speaking, then reading and then later still, writing. I know this method will not teach my children to conjugate any verbs. But there will be time for that stuff later. Right now, I want them to have the exposure to something new.

We have not established dates yet, but I am hoping to organize a 'sample' class if possible in April. Maybe these classes will give me a chance to brush up on my rather sparse knowledge.