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."

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.