The Spirit of Education

Points, points, points.

In some of my university classes, in particular in mathematics, I see what I call ‘calculating’ students. I am not referring to solving math problems, but to a certain attitude towards getting through my class.

These students are strategically (and some of them expertly) going through their laundry lists of how to get through college with the best GPA and the best portfolio that will sell them optimally on the labor market. — Is this commendable?? Well, to an idealist like yours truly, I don’t think so. No, I am not disputing that some of these students may be what you would call ‘successful’ in life, in terms of landing a good job and making good money, knowing when to sell and trade up for the next big house, the next big car, etc., but this is not the stuff that we want life made of, is it?

One of the beauties of homeschooling is that we can get away from these pesky ‘ill-motivating’ points and learn for the sake of the subject, for the sake of the love of learning, and for the sake of interest.

Now before you throw your hands up in the air and declare me hopelessly deluded by ideals that do not exist anywhere in your universe, let me qualify that NOT EVERYTHING is fun to learn and NOT EVERYTHING is going to entice kids and sometimes we do have to use either ‘brute force’ (metaphorically speaking) or ‘carrots’ to get junior out of the start holes and engaged.

What I am lamenting is that some kids get all the way to college and they have never engaged with any topic academically except because they were forced to do so, or at times because they were bribed to do so.

What these students lack is the joy of doing it because it is interesting.

Well, so how do we engage students in material in such a way that they want to study it and pursue it for its own sake? And that is a difficult question to answer because at the heart of that question is the psychology of motivation.

My answer would be that the learning environment is one large factor in student motivation. The other two would be student abilities (native) and student training.

Learning Environment

Your classroom is where students learn, obviously. And that environment has to be inviting, safe, fun, and challenging all at the same time.

Inviting Environment
What I mean by inviting is that it should be an orderly, well-equipped place where the student has his or her own desk (and computer or tablet, if possible) — a mini student office, if you will, where he or she gets to arrange the space and live in the space in the same way those of us who work in an office get to organize and take pride in our own offices. If you need to, go on a shopping spree at an office supply store. Let your student pick out both writing supplies that he or she likes, colors for folders and trays and other storage bins, themed stickers, anything that gets him or her excited about arranging the school space to say ‘this is uniquely me’.

Safe Environment
Obviously home is not a hazardous place threatening to blow up, be bombed or otherwise pose a physical risk to our kids. I am here talking about emotionally safety. Any homeschool with more than one kid will have pecking orders: the weak student, the stronger student, the loud student, the quiet student, the dominant student, the compliant and submissive student. For students to love school (even school at home) the emotional environment needs to be affirming. That means, even if the student struggles to be motivated, and even if the student is not good at spelling or writing, the schoolroom has to be a place where the student feels safe to try, and does not worry about being attacked by demeaning looks and comments from other students — and likewise not a tirade of frustration from the teacher when he or her fails to deliver the desired product.

I recently went to a talk by a homeschool father who used to chair the homeschool association in Colorado and one of his comments about homeschooling and ‘mom’ (who is usually the teacher) was that mom is so emotionally invested that she is more likely than a public school teacher to yell at her kids for misspelled spelling words. I understand the temptation and the weakness, but I would maintain that this must be the exception, not the norm. In fact, when I listened to that man say that, my immediate reaction was NO, I don’t remember doing that, and NO, that cannot be a regular occurrence, or the environment of the homeschool will not feel like an emotionally safe place to a kid who struggles to perform.

Part of emotional safety is that when the student is struggling, the teacher takes the time to come alongside the student with the attitude of ‘let’s unravel this together’, and then you sit side by side, going through the assignment or problem or essay or spelling list, and with HUMOR and good will, you show the student how to recover gracefully and victoriously from the mini-defeat that just took place, so the student comes out on the other side with the skills to complete the problem well, but also with the emotional fortitude that should this happen again, I have the strength and the sense of direction to recover well. The teacher may need to aid with this kind of recovery several times before the student is emotionally and intellectually prepared to start turning himself or herself around when an assignment has gone south.

Likewise, if there is a tendency in your student ranks to laugh at one particular person or always sigh at a particular person, you need to turn that around by selecting that student for praise, encouraging that student, as well as pulling aside the students who laugh or sigh and explain why that is not a way that we treat our fellow human beings, not in the family, nor anywhere else.

Fun Environment

Your homeschool should be a fun place to be, not every second, but as a rule, your students should enjoy going there, or you are not likely to produce life-long love of learning. Fun means starting out the day with something motivating. My students read plays right after prayers, breakfast, and chores. We read simple kids plays and moved up to more complicated plays as they got older. They loved acting that part. They also read and copied poems and learned to recite them (and happened to like it). Figure out what you love and what your students love and sprinkle that stuff throughout the school day, so the day is doable for each one of them.

One of the most motivating factors in a student’s life is that YOU are excited about the material, and that you model a love for learning that is tenacious and contagious. For example, we never gave up on a math problem. If there was one that did not sit with the student I sat with him or her until he got it (if I knew the answer). Once we were both stumped on some precalculus, and we did set it aside to eat dinner, but it was on the front burner for the next day’s math. Smack in the middle of a movie at night I said, I got it!! And my son and I buzzed down in the basement to the white board to hash out the silly detail that we had written square root of 2 as if it were 2 and it had ruined our entire problem. — We also did a ton of diagramming (we are puzzle type people and love to ponder stuff) and quite often we would wrestle with a diagram from Latin that we just couldn’t quite figure out… and we would stick with it. — For your school that could be singing and getting the students to learn a difficult 4 part harmony piece. It could be sticking to piano lessons 1 hour practice per day, it could be a gardening project where you are very disciplined about weeding and watering and studying how to treat the plants or how to best lay out your garden. It could be sewing or woodwork or some science fair project. Whatever it is, if you in your life care enough to do it right every time, if you have good routines and show students how to finish stuff, and if you get excited about seeing an ancient Roman coin at a museum, if you are thrilled to succeed in translating a tough Latin sentence, if you delight in exploring how ancient cultures calculated pi (yes, I do!!!), or if you are into learning C++ programming with your kids, whatever it is…. YOUR enthusiasm, your behavior around academic topics is one they will imitate. IF you are not excited and if you do not think this is fun, neither will they. They will read your attitude and absorb it by osmosis and make it their own.

Student Abilities and Training

Obviously student abilities play into how a student feels about school. My son with Down’s is not going into calculus. He has a limited ability to learn many things, HOWEVER, whatever he is capable of learning he is very motivated to do. In short, abilities should not be the issue. It is an issue of training.

By training I mean, YOU help training the student to do what he or she needs to do, and stick with him or her until the skill is learned well enough that he or she has some independence. In 3rd grade I gave my oldest son a Latin test from his Latin curriculum. He did abysmally and I was shocked because we had gone over the stuff and he knew it. I asked a teacher friend of mine and he said that he expects his students to do well “those things which he has taught them well”. I had never before given my son a test, he did not know how to take tests, and I had assumed that he had the skills innately. But he didn’t. I needed to train him in how to take a test — not assume that because I knew how to do it, he would too.

Training is so very important, and the balance between helping and letting students struggle on their own is difficult to hit just right. My daughter, somewhere around 5th grade, got in the habit, as soon as I handed her something to just throw her hands in the air and cry for help. I wanted to help, but I did not want to spoon-feed her. I basically had to sit down make a list of what skills she was lacking (based on the behavior I was seeing) and then figure a plan for how to help her be more of a self-starter and how to persevere rather than ask for help after a second’s contemplation of the assignment. My first step was to make sure she read the assignment independently all the way through TWICE. My second step was to MAKE HER identify specifically where she was lost… and then after she had done some prep work, I would ‘help’ her by asking questions and having her identify the missing pieces until she was able to complete the assignment. This process was slightly painful and she was resentful for a short while, but with encouragement, within 6 months or so, I had her ‘trained’ to be more of a self-starter and more independent, a skill that has paid off for years and continues to do so.

We train–not too much, not too little, but just right– with an eye towards supporting independence and innovation in our students. It requires knowing the student well, and whenever you see an academic behavior that troubles you, sit down on your own, articulate to yourself precisely what the troubling behavior is, list all its aspects and why it irritates you, list possible causes — is the student looking for attention, does the student simply not have the training to complete the task, is the student just not motivated to complete the work, is the student too eager to do something else that is coming up next, is the student somehow afraid of looking inept or in some other way does the student have some fears? Then brainstorm for paths to success, how can we get over this learning or focusing or motivation hurdle? Make a multi-step plan, share your observations with your student. Enlist his or her help to blaze through with this new plan to bring about success. Ask him or her for things that would help motivate to get through this.

Challenging Environment

Above I ask for a safe fun environment, and now I want a challenging environment. By that I mean an environment that is safe and fun but which stretches a student to do his utmost. It is difficult for a teacher to know when a student has been pushed too hard, which is a terrible thing to do to a student, but it is in my view equally wrong not to challenge a student enough so that he or she gets a chance to excel at what they are good at, and learn to do well that which they may not be so good at.

Here is another area where homeschooling can really shine. We KNOW our students well, very well, and we know what they like, we know what they are good at — if we have provided that safe fun environment where they have been allowed to be themselves enough that we actually see the real ‘them’ and not the version of the student that the student thinks you want to see.

No student should be challenged everywhere all the time. There should be the easy course that is kind of fun, along with the course that is hard but rewarding. During my years as a college professor I get to see many products of homeschooling as well as private and public schooling. You have the chance to engage and challenge your student more so than institutional schools, because you (the homeschool teacher) can shape the curriculum and the assignments precisely around what that student can handle and what that student is interested in. I had one of mine doing C++, another doing Greek. One was really into literature, another loved history, and the third finished Calculus 3 before graduating. They did a lot together, but they also got their own projects to work on independent of their siblings.

Summa Summarum
Let me finish with this, I know we live in a society that likes to ‘earn’ everything, a society where hard work is rewarded and where you get what you deserve. That attitude may be politically sound, and it may be important for your student to know that out there in the real life, he or she needs to support him or herself and be responsible with his or her time, money, etc. Where the attitude falls short is when it becomes exacting and when education, knowledge, learning, study is simply an exchange medium — something I do to get a diploma so I can ‘buy’ myself a place in the workplace, so I can earn some money and buy the things I want.

Education and learning are pursuits that are worthwhile for their own sakes. I am currently reading Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People with a friend. To that end, I regularly listen to the book on audio while commuting. I do that because I enjoy the story and I am interested in filling in holes from my big-picture English history. I print maps to follow along with places mentioned in the story because I could not put Wessex, Kent, and North Umbria on a map. I look up lists of English rulers, because I need to place them in a framework of history and connect them with my knowledge of world history, French history, etc. I do this for two reasons 1. I love spending time with my friend and we have a cool two person reading group. 2. because I love history, I love Winston Churchill and I am plum interested in the topic simply BECAUSE I AM. It is not going to earn me a greater salary at work, it is not going to help me related better to my family. It’s something I do for its own sake, and it is worth doing because it is interesting, and perhaps as it deepens my knowledge it may make me a more compassionate, interesting, and thoughtful person (I hope).

THAT is the attitude I hope to instill in all our students about all the learning they do. WOW!! I get the chance to learn French… how cool!! Or oh, I didn’t know what caused weather, that is fascinating…. so what does it mean when ________?? And the question goes on and on as love of learning goes on and on.

If I have made no other point than this— let me say this one again — Love of learning begins with you!! Yes. If you find studying Beethoven’s biography and the development of his sonatas over time interesting, so will your students!!! If you make jelly and wonder why it did not set and you start digging into the chemistry of what went wrong in your kitchen… in short if you approach life with a voracious appetite for knowing more, if you tenaciously dig into topics and pursue them till you get your answers, if you don’t give up but stick with a job till it is done, if you stay late, come early, and do your work well with interest…. SO will your students, most likely. They will imitate your approach to learning, more so than anything you say or assign.

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Unplugging your Student – Focusing and Communicating in the Present

Training your student in good orderly habits for studying is the BEST preparation you can give him or her for college.

Training your student to sit still, to be still, to focus is absolutely essential for higher education.
Many do not have it. Many do not finish college – ever because they cannot get out of bed, they cannot get themselves to class, they cannot stay awake or focused in class, they cannot focus enough to study to do the homework and pass the tests.

Note this:

59 percent of full-time, first-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution in fall 2005 completed the degree at that institution within 6 years. ~ National Center for Education Statistics.
That is the SIX YEAR graduation rate for a bachelor’s degree. The four year graduation rate nationally in the United States is about 44%!

One of the biggest obstacles to learning that I see in my college students is the inability to focus for more than five minutes without having to check a cellphone or a tablet. Basically, students struggle to sit still and focus on a difficult topic. I do not permit electronics in my lectures, and yet, in the back, I see students ‘sneak’ a peek at a phone when they think I am not looking.

OK, let’s be honest. There is something pathetic about me when I am so absorbed in my smartphone that it cannot be put away for even fifty minutes while I attend to something else. There is something rude about me being in the physical company of one person, while more so attending to my phone, be that in line at the grocery store, in my car when I should be driving, or when I am having coffee with a dear friend.

I take my own adult children to task with this phone problem occasion with the admonition that “you are here with me in my car right now, please be present.” Not that any of us mind a quick message or quick peek, but no persistent phone checking and messaging. It is the sort of thing we do when we are alone.

And I don’t say that in a judgmental or angry tone. I am more so saddened that our advances in technology (while it is marvelous that we can Skype with a person who is half way around the world) are destroying our abilities to be present in the moment and give the flesh and blood humans who are in the same room as us our attention.

Do not get me wrong, I am not advocating that we abandon electricity, phones, and zippers and return to the 1600s. I know distractions have always been an issue for humanity. Before computers, dads hid behind the newspaper when they came home from work. We all need down time, and we all need to be excused from exerting ourselves, so we can recharge after a long day. But we don’t need to be excused all day simply because the distracted life is the easier life. I know that focusing on anything for any length of time takes effort and concentration. It is easier to let your mind wander, or to attend to less demanding things like laughing at the class clown or paying attention to the little skirmish that is taking place in the hall outside the classroom. It takes effort to understand and memorize the abstract concepts presented in a high school or college classroom. These classes can be difficult, and on first encounter, the all-important nuances of a technically difficult subject may seem irrelevant to the distracted soul.
OK, now that I have admitted that humans have always been distracted, I want to add that I still believe that the current generation of young people attending college are, perhaps, the most distracted generation we have ever dealt with in higher education. The entertainment at their fingertips in terms of music, videos, texts from friends, that constant shifting of their attentions from one thing to another in a desperate search for something that will capture their scattered minds is extremely damaging to the functioning of their minds.

No, I am not preaching doom and gloom here, but I am recommending that your young homeschool students be removed from their devices during school time. I am recommending that they focus on their handwriting or spelling lessons without distracting noises in the background, and without a phone sitting on their desks. I am recommending that not every subject be taught online or at a computer, and that when a subject is taught on a computer that you safeguard the computer such that only the software needed for the task at hand is available to the student at that time.
This need not be done in a paranoid, angry or suspicious manner. You can freely admit to your students that you too would struggle with distractions with every two seconds your email beeped or your phone sent you a text. We are always curious when we are alerted that we have a message, and the easiest way to not divert our attention to that fact, is to turn off audible alerts, and to not open the software with the messages until we have time to attend to it.

You could, for example, have the student work for 50 minutes and then he or she is allowed to check messages.
So… back to my topic… writing. Students who cannot focus for long periods of time on a subject will never be good writers, will never string long complex arguments together, will never go into depth with any subject because they never dwell on any one subject long enough to go deep at all.
Focus – How do you and your students focus? And how do you pull yourselves back from a distraction when one happens?

1. Have an uncluttered environment for your students to study in. Leave electronics in another room.
2. No music or background noise. It is time to be quiet, to focus on the task at hand (be that lecture time, writing time, math problem solving time)
3. Ensure that everyone has had a bathroom break before getting started.
4. Help your students get in a routine of gathering all the materials you need before you start, so they do not have the excuse of having to get up and get stuff before they can continue their task. For math that would include pencil, paper, eraser, ruler, calculator (perhaps?), math book, etc.
5. Make each study session 45-50 minutes (depending on the age, for 1st graders start with 20 minutes), and let the students have a 10 minute break to go outside, or check electronics, and then call them back to their work.
6. I say OMIT snacks during study time. Set a separate time for food and drinks. Surely anyone can go 45 minutes without needing to snack on something.

If you have a student who cannot function through these 5 points, patiently and persistently ‘train’ him or her. Start with as little as 5 minutes. Increase the time, and provide tangible rewards (that otherwise would not be available) to bring him or her to the point where studying undistractedly for the requisite 45 minutes is possible. This will take some time, perhaps the better part of a whole school year. Training may involve your sitting with the person at first, for accountability, but eventually, unless there are other issues looming, you should be able to leave your student to work on his or her own for 45 minutes. Certainly that is the minimum requirement for success in college.

The younger your kids are, the easier this is to do. Simply set new guidelines for how we function around our electronic devices. Model healthy use of electronics yourself. Show your kids that you are able to put them away, that you can sit and play a game of Sorry without having to check your phone— and that if the phone rings (cell or otherwise) you are able to let it to your voicemail, because YOUR KIDS and your time with them are more important than whoever is at the other end of that tyrannical little $300 smartphone. Model judicious cell and computer use, and your kids (with your guidelines firmly in place to help them when they are tempted) are likely to imitate you.
Let me close with this analogy: Good electronic use is like good eating. It is a matter of discipline. There is candy and chocolate, and cake, all high carbohydrate, high fat, low fiber quick fix energy sources that we gravitate towards. And then there is the high fiber, vegetables and fruits, and the lean meats and whole grains, which take longer to digest and which do not give you an immediate sugar high. We need to gravitate towards long term good health in our eating in order to serve our bodies best. We need to gravitate towards judicious electronics use for the sake of our minds and souls. (And the soul component will be for another day, another blog).

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Scheduling and Consistency

Go Dog Go

A couple of months ago, I talked about consistency as related to homeschooling little ones. I talked about how we need to do a regular daily session of language arts every day just 30 minutes (and perhaps only 4 days per week). A little adds up to a lot over time, and consistency will count for a lot more than just random marathon sessions.

As mentioned between reading, spelling, letter formation, and simple copybook and writing, in the early years that 30 minutes, distributed amongst a few simple tasks, such as our Primers provide, is all you need in those early grades.

Some people questioned me, relating to this, about scheduling it all, and I do recommend one source that I used way back many years ago. It is a book called “Managers of their Homes”. It has its title from Titus 2 in the Bible. This resource has now expanded and I don’t know what all it includes, but it may be worth a look to see what the books they offer there are now.

Now, I would say, even if you are not a Christian, or if the flavor of Christianity at this website is not the one you subscribe to, I would still recommend looking at the organizational resources available there. You can study organization and become organized regardless of most of your religious, political, or moral convictions. It is a matter of learning a few principles.

This particular web site is really good at teaching step by step management (in particular) of your time. You get to evaluate how much time you have in your week, prioritize how you would like to spend it, balance that with the tasks you must do (including homeschooling each child and time with the toddler), and then their books help you REALISTICALLY draw up a schedule that it would actually be possible for you to follow. I think I started this when my oldest was in about 6th grade or so, and it made a huge difference in my homeschooling. Even just the time inventory—learning how much time I actually have and learning how I actually spend it vs. how I would like to spend it— was worth the whole book for me, at the time.

So back to writing, which is the topic of our blog here— the most important thing you can do in writing education is to be consistent. A lot of little writing assignments spread over weeks and years do a lot more for a student than a couple of inconsistent killer projects.

Young students should read and be read to — not A LOT, but consistently. Young students should do regular copybook work — not A LOT, but consistently. And as the language they read and hear during read aloud time and also absorb during copybook work is cemented in their brains and hearts as proper speech pattern they will ‘by osmosis’, if you will, begin to form writing habits of their own, simply as a result of the language habits they hear consistently.

In short, there is much you can do in homeschooling in terms of the 3 Rs, in terms of sports, in terms of music, in terms of social studies and science — in my opinion there is nothing as important in education as the 3 Rs. You can short change computer science or history, perhaps, but do not short change the 3Rs. Get them done consistently every week, all the time.

🙂 Your students’ long term academic performances will attest to this.

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