Sunday, January 25, 2015

algebra: teaching to the test

I'm happy to report that Chana is no longer completely not comprehending the questions.  The first test was emotionally upsetting, because she felt she didn't know the math (a lot of it had Common Core subjects that are not algebra) or because she didn't understand what the questions are asking.  We are now in the middle of the second test and there is a clear improvement in her comprehension of the questions and in her mental state.  (We're still getting a few of them wrong here and there, because I simply don't know the answers, which is one of the things I dislike about homeschooling--I'm teaching algebra and I'm a somewhat incompetent math teacher.  This is not a reason not to homeschool--it's fairly easy to outsource a tutor or a math program or a curriculum that will tell me exactly how to teach.  I just didn't because I'm fairly proficient at algebra.  But we're paying the price here.)  My plan is (as per the suggestion of a fellow homeschooler) to purchase the Barron's review book because they actually explain how they get to the answers, and I'm feeling like we need that.  But it's nice to see some clear progress.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

sleeping late

A feature of radical unschooling, aside from allowing children to choose what they learn and when, is that the children are allowed to choose what and when they eat, and what time they go to sleep.

I started off my parenting life being extremely strict about sugar and sweets.  Eventually this began to backfire and I felt I was policing too much.  A friend of mine suggested a book that revolutionized how I thought about food, and I began "unschooling" food.  (This was before I ever even heard of unschooling.)  

When my oldest was a toddler, a newlywed friend who had no children suggested that it made sense to let the children go to bed whenever they wanted.  He theorized that eventually they would work out their own rhythms.  I scoffed.  In my experience, children didn't peacefully go to sleep.  They got cranky, cried, didn't settle down if you missed the window, and were horribly tantrummy the next day.

But now I find myself in the odd situation of somewhat unschooling sleep.  My 7yo asked earlier in the year if he could go to sleep "when he's tired."  Up until this year, he had the habit of beginning to destroy things and literally jump off the walls if 8pm came and he wasn't put to bed.  But he seemed to have outgrown that, so we tried it out.  He fell asleep a lot more quickly and also began sleeping later.  My 5yo has always preferred to be on a 9:30pm-9:30am schedule, but since he shares a room with his brother, he was being woken up earlier and needed to go to sleep earlier.  I do still put him to bed most nights, but his bedtime has evolved to 9:30.  I found that my 3yo hasn't gotten wild or tantrummy either, and usually comes to request that I put him to bed most nights.  (Sometimes he does melt down, but it's less frequent than I would have thought when I scoffed at my friend.)

A study of why homeschoolers love being homeschooled listed being able to get enough sleep as the number one thing they like about being homeschooled.

Last night was Friday night.  After dinner we did family snuggle (minus my 13yo who decided to read Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People*) and it was about 10pm when everyone went to sleep.  I began to fret a little that the boys would have to be woken up to go to shul in the morning.  And if they would be crabby and function less than optimally.

And then it struck me.  It is normal in our society for children to be woken up every. single. day.  Swathes of children aren't getting enough sleep.  (Especially teenagers.)

I went through years of not enough sleep.  My youngest is 3 and it's only been a few months where I could count on sleeping past 7am.  There were years when I had nursing infants and years and years when our children thought that 5am was morning.  It's actually incredible how much lack of sleep people can still function with.  I can function on three hours of interrupted sleep.  (Too many of those in a row, though, and I start screaming and crying.  Melt down, if you will.)

I also recall years of me waking up at 6am to catch the bus to school.  I still remember the physical pain of waking up tired to face a full day of school and then homework and studying.

Some things about unschooling have crept up on me so slowly I have forgotten what life used to be like.  I didn't really understand what homeschooling was before I started it.  I didn't really understand that it's a different lifestyle, a different way of looking at the world, a different way of functioning.  It's not just about education and how we learn.  It's also about eating and sleeping and the rhythms of life.

I remember once we were interviewed for an article about homeschooling.  "What do you do for lunch?" he asked my daughter.
"Huh?  We go to the kitchen when I'm hungry and we make lunch," she replied.  What a funny question.

*I don't know if she'll actually end up reading the whole thing.  She found the first chapter boring.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On saying "Yes" instead of "No"

I wrote this post about why I began practicing saying "Yes" to children's ideas instead of saying "No."

People often lament that kids these days only want to be involved in multimedia and nobody is creative.  I think if we would pay more attention to the grandiose ideas that children have and get out of their way when they attempt them, then we would have a generation of creative people who have ideas and follow through on them.

Here are some issues that I encounter when trying to say "Yes" instead of "Are you nuts?!" "No":

cleaning up mess

  • I have to be careful with this one.  Sometimes an idea is going to make a mess and I'm too emotionally fragile to have that much mess.  So then I try to give a specific time when they can.  And I try to follow through on that.  But sometimes the answer is just "I'm not up for it."
  • I try to train them to clean up after themselves as much as possible.  I want to imbue them with the idea that part of the activity is the cleanup. e.g. "clean as you go" when cooking, or you're not finished with the easy bake oven until all of the batter is cleaned off the table and the pans are rinsed.  Painting means water is spilled out, brushes are rinsed, and the cloth is folded up.  Using duct tape or the stapler means it is put back.  
  • When they are young, I clean up with them and give directions as they clean up.  When they are older, I expect the majority of cleanup to be done without me (though they always have a right to request my help cleaning up).  I use "Love and Logic" techniques if things are not cleaned up.  If the paint is left on the porch or I have to gather children and supervise a cleanup, then that affects how I feel the next time they ask.  
  • I read up and implement techniques to make cleanup more manageable for myself. If I'm not overwhelmed and if I know how to give clear guidelines and expectations for their clean ups, then we can do more things.  Decluttering, organizing, and learning to clean up an area in 20 minutes are valuable skills that make me more able to say "yes" when they want to do something.

destruction of property
I like to say yes, but I want to teach them to respect other people's property and to respect the concept of not breaking things that other people might find useful.  Using Love and Logic techniques, when they break something serious or beloved, they have to save up and pay for it.
That aside, when I discovered that the DS was eventually broken and they asked if they could smash it and take it apart, I said yes.  They spent a half hour doing so (with a hammer), investigated the inside, used the parts to try to build other things, and, of course, cleaned up all the pieces when they were finished.
When they asked to take apart a broken bike so that they could build a rocketship, I thought it was unlikely that they would be able to make a working rocketship, but I said yes.  As of this writing, they have not made a working rocketship.

appropriate public social behavior

  • This was probably something I struggled with the most in the beginning.  It helps if you can access the rebellious part of your personality that might actually enjoy going against society.  But mostly it's pretty uncomfortable.  
  • It's a strong value in our home to be respectful of other people's property and, to some degree, people's sensitivities.  I am absolutely firm that they must have appropriate boundaries regarding other people's property.  The question of other people's discomfort is a more complex issue.  ("Can I eat what I picked out of my nose?" "Um..It's not poison but some people will probably feel uncomfortable if you do." "So that's a yes?" "Um, I guess so." "Hey, Jack, did you know you can eat your booger?")
  • A lot of requests trigger my own discomfort. To work on this, I went through a process: 
    • If I want to say no, then I ask myself why.  
    • Then I ask what about it makes me feel uncomfortable.  
    • Then I try to evaluate whether that feeling is reason enough to prevent this exploration of the world or this experience 

  • I found that I frequently preferred to get over my discomfort and give them this opportunity.  Thinking about the long term benefits of being able to explore things or being able to follow through on ideas compared to what message I am teaching them by saying No gave me perspective.
What they want to do is impossible
I already discussed that.  So what if it's impossible?  What if it is actually possible and you are imposing your warped and restricted view of the word onto them?  If they won't destroy anything and they will (mostly) clean up after themselves why oh why are you sucking the fun out of everything and delivering the message that they should stop being creative and stop looking for interesting ways to interact with the world.  (I hope that wasn't too harsh.  That's just what I say to myself ;)

On shifting from saying "No" to saying "I can't see why not"

Something I've been practicing since Sarah was a toddler was biting back my natural inclination to say No to everything.  Children naturally have lots of ideas.  Lots of impractical, annoying, messy, impossible ideas.  And my gut reaction is almost always, "No."

When I first became a parent and I was youthful and idealistic, I wondered why parents were always discouraging their children.  Children are so enthusiastic.  They want to do so many things.  And the adults in their lives are always telling them no.  Sometimes because it's an inconvenience to the adult.  But about half the time it's not a tremendous inconvenience; the adult just feels that it's not something "done" or it's not "appropriate" or it just seems extremely impractical.

I began to experiment.  I would only say No if I could think of a good reason to say No.  I began to question whether or not my reasons for refusing were "good" reasons.  I found, upon investigation, that the majority of my refusals were because of social discomfort, or because I was choosing laziness over my child's exploration of the world.

I began to try: "I guess so."  Or perhaps a more enthusiastic, "Go for it."  Or, if I was really reluctant: "How do you plan to do that?"  or "Here's what my concern is.  What is your plan for that?"

I also tried to get into the habit of saying, "Sounds great" when they said anything that seemed fantastical to me.

I was thinking yesterday about the time they captured a bird.  If you would have asked me if a 2nd grader could capture a bird, I would have said, "How absurd! Capture a bird!?"  But since I have mainly broken myself of the habit of being negative about their ideas, back when he was in kindergarten and he asked for a piece of bread or a bag of popcorn so he could set a trap for a bird, I pointed to the closet and asked him why he wanted to capture a bird.  It turns out he had plans to eat it, so we discussed shechita and kosher birds.  Three years later, he came running into the house that they had caught a bird.  It was incredibly exciting.  I was incredibly excited.  They put a box over it.  I wondered if it was sick or injured (since everyone knows you can't capture a bird, darn it!) and discussed the diseases and transfer of diseases.  I think the boys made plans to call animal control or a vet.  But the bird somehow escaped and flew away.  And that was the adventure of the time the idea of capturing a bird came to fruition, with three years of perseverance.

Imagine if I had not practiced saying yes.

Another time I came upon the boys.  They had a huge pile of papers.  And lots of tape.  And scissors.  And a big mess.  I walked in.  They looked up and smiled.  I had a flash of a thought that what I was unconsciously expecting from them was to freeze in fear and wait for me to yell at them.  I asked them what they were doing, they happily shared, and I asked them if they would clean up when they were done and to please call me if they needed help cleaning it up.  I have no recollection of whether they cleaned it themselves or if I helped, but the lack of freezing in fear remains with me.

Imagine if I had not practiced saying yes.

In my next post I will go through some categories of reasons I want to say no but why I (mostly try to) ultimately say yes.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

algebra regents--teaching to the test

So Chana finished learning algebra.  We used math TV which I got by posting on various homeschool groups that I wanted free algebra programs, and people suggested different ones, and Chana and I finally settled on liking this one.  I liked that it organized the material in a way that what came next built on what came previously.  I liked that it gave examples.  I liked that every example had a video answer to show how to do it if we got stuck.  Mostly I would teach Chana how to do it (either using the first example of its kind and showing her, or using a whiteboard, or using another site like purplemath or math is fun). Chana would do the problems and check them by looking at the very end of the video.

Now we are done.  Would I say Chana "knows" algebra?  Eh.  I think some of it she internalized and can do (like factoring quadratics.  I think she'll be able to do that for the rest of her life).  But definitely some things would need some more review.

So it is January now.  The Algebra Regents (common core) are in June.  So we have over 5 months for her to review, to get a little more fluent in the problems, and to learn how to take tests.

To that end, I spoke to the algebra teacher at the school I work for and he told me to get the topical review booklet which has 5 tests to practice.

What I have discovered is

1) Knowing algebra is not the same as knowing what is on common core.   There are things like quartiles, box and whisker plots, and all sorts of things that are not algebra.

2) Knowing algebra is not the same thing as knowing how to decode the language of the regents.  Chana often has no idea what the questions are asking.  I say to her, "You know how to do this."  And she says, "I have no idea what this means!"

So we are hacking through.  At each problem, I have to stop to actually teach her something new, or I have to walk her through what it means.  Hopefully this will become more natural as she goes through more problems.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

v'hagita bo yomam v'layla

For once it's before 9pm and Chana finished her work earlier in the day.  I am upstairs with Jack because he's afraid to fall asleep himself.  He asked for sock Torah (I said "Can you daven in socks and no shoes") and mattress Torah (I talked about a bunkbed in a succah, which he didn't quite get because he got distracted building himself a blanket fort).

Chana is almost done with Balak.  It's January so we're actually pretty on schedule for her finishing Chamisha Chumshei Torah by the end of the summer after 8th grade.  If she doesn't go to school, then the schedule is pretty irrelevant.

I'd love to learn with Elazar a bit tonight.  So many nights I feel I don't have the energy.  I wonder if I have the urge because I actually can't really do it, because I'm with Jack.

I do have a pile of laundry I've been ignoring for three days.  Now would probably be a good time to do it, as Jack falls asleep.  Then, if I don't have too much decision fatigue maybe I'll seek out Elazar.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

jumble of thoughts

  • Chana's math hit the point where I can't speak Hebrew anymore.  I would do a combo of Hebrew with a lot of English thrown in.  But it got too complex and we're just straight English basically.
  • We have been bickering like mad over algebra.  I'm super proud of how we keep our tone (fairly) calm and keep de-escalating.  But tensions are high and emotions are high.  Tonight I realized that she says she doesn't understand, I ask her what she doesn't understand, I go back and slow down and try to explain it (with a slight edge of "you should know this" even though that's a lie because I didn't explain it, which is very damaging to do to students!) and when she finally understands, she reproaches me for not having explained it to begin with.  I started telling her that's what I think is happening, and then she said, no, I don't understand, and we started the whole little dance again.  We now have what we've been jokingly referring to as "the aftermath" where we have to recoup and stop disliking each other.
  • I don't think Elazar is really getting the translations of Shema.  There are a lot of elements involved.  1. Understanding the general concepts of the paragraph  2. Understanding how those are related to the Hebrew words he is reciting. 3. Trope.  4. Familiarity with the translation.
    I could recite it over and over with them until he becomes familiar with it, but it seems to me that it's just as efficient to wait until he's older and more conceptual.
  • I was talking to a fellow homeschooler who told me about the marvelous unit study she did with her children and Percy Jackson and Greek culture and how much they appreciated what it meant for the Jews to fight against a conquering enemy.  She explained how Chanuka was so meaningful for them.  It was so beautiful and inspiring and I loved hearing how a fellow Jewish homeschooler is passing on the mesorah of our Torah and the deep concepts in our traditions.  It also made me realize how I've almost completely forgotten what it's like to be inspired to create lesson plans.  I felt a little sad by that.  Also very grateful that I know about unschooling and thus still have a way of educating my children that I believe in when I am in a place where I am uninspired to coax education.  But it reminded me of my excitement from thirteen years ago and I am just in a different place, educationally and emotionally.
  • I'm not in the dregs of infant and toddler parenting anymore.  My youngest is 3yo and although I still have a hard time leaving the house and managing "appropriate" public behavior if there are places where movement is restricted, the day to day drudgery in my house has majorly eased up.  The constant mess and constant crying and constant feeding and carrying have eased up.
    Despite this, most days I feel like I can stay calm and loving and guide my children's emotional development OR I can do academics.  
    Tonight I started Chana's work after 7pm.  I cleaned up but didn't vacuum.  I have a major house project that I didn't get to.  I did straighten up.  I did navigate a half hour tantrum with sangfroid.  I did take everyone out today.  I didn't put my 5yo to bed and it's 9:45pm (he sleeps late, though).
  • Elazar is making tremendous strides with reading and writing even though I am not teaching him anything.  It's really cool.  I'm waiting until he actually reads fluently (this could take another two to four years) and then I'll detail the process.  
  • Aharon knows "shin/sin" even though nobody quite taught it to him.  

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Jack turned 5

Yesterday, Jack, who was fortunate to receive his very own Lashon HaTorah workbook (much to Aharon (age 3)'s annoyance, he had to make do with some other workbook that was not the same as his brothers'), dragged it over to me and did about 5 pages in it.  No, he can't read.  Yes, he knows his aleph beis (most of it).  He did the matching and remembered a lot from each previous page.  It seemed to me his guesses were more accurate than just random guessing.  After doing more pages than Elazar 2 days ago (and even dragging the book up to his father when I begged him to please ask Daddy to do it with him and doing an additional 2 pages), he brought it to me again yesterday.  He wanted me to read the Hebrew, then he translated it, then he wanted me to read the English until he found the match.  Then we got to a page with writing, and I showed him how to copy the words.  And he got through a page of writing.  He asked me to draw dots for some of the letters.

He has beautiful handwriting.  And he can sit.  He's not adhd.  I was thinking about it this morning and I realized he's "ben chamesh l'mikra."  It's time for his chinuch to start.

Last week he was just a four year old and could putter around.  I knew he was learning and thinking and acquiring knowledge.  But it struck me yesterday that this child would probably be pretty happy if I sat with him for an hour a day and taught him things.

Then I start feeling anxious that I can barely do the things I already do without throwing this into the mix (I've been thinking about a post about that).  Then I told myself that I'm unschooling him, so calm down.  Then I told myself to keep an eye for his learning opportunities, since he's demonstrating readiness.  Then I wondered if maybe unschooling is not best for him.  Then I told myself the sun didn't even rise yet so maybe just take a deep breath and sit with this.

I'm surprised every single time when children make that transition from preschool into elementary school.  I turn around and they want to read and write and go to classes and learn things.

Since Elazar's ability to sit is about two or three year's behind (though his intellect and abstract capacity are grade level) I think I got extra thrown off by Jack's rare ability to sit for hours.  I thought it would be a few more years but it's time now.

Time for what?  Not for doing anything especially.  Time for me to shift my mindset into "elementary school" for Jack.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Update on Scholarship test

Chana begged me to allow her to pull an all-nighter on Motzei Shabbos so she could finish the animation she was working on.  I said no, she has to go to bed by midnight so she has enough sleep before the test.  I suggested she wake up at 5am if she wanted to get some animation in.  She didn't.

She took a calculator to the test but said that it was easier to do the math without the calculator.  But that she didn't get any of the multiple choice answers.  So she guessed.  And she guessed on most of the questiosn.  Except ones where you had to fill in answers.  Which she left out.  It was a 3 hour test and she finished in an hour and 15 minutes.  She did not seem stressed or upset that she didn't know the answers.  She said if high school is for going to learn the answers to these questions, it's going to be boring.  She said that she didn't much see the point of her waking up and sitting through that.  She's probably right.

Interesting is the difference between her as an 8th grader taking a test and me as an 8th grader taking a test.  She doesn't feel it's an especially meaningful indicator of her value or of the value of her education.  Homeschoolers do tend towards skills and knowledge later, mostly because they are busy playing and because it doesn't make a huge difference in the long run.  Sort of like learning to read at age 3 or age 7, or learning to walk at 9 months or 16 months.

She's been animating all day and it's almost time for me to put the boys to bed and I'm not going to be very in the mood to do schoolwork after that.

unschooling lashon hatorah

I have been wondering if Elazar should start the Rabbi Winder series of Lashon HaTorah workbooks.  A friend dropped off her old workbooks and there were 2 Aleph workbooks, so Jack and Elazar started working on them.  I thought that Elazar could read the basic English words (I was right) and recognize the letters (I was right) and know what they mean (I was right).  But he got thoroughly annoyed at me when I tried to explain to him what was going on and what he was supposed to do.  He was having a grand ol' time (except he kept telling me to please stop saying things, it was annoying) and I was telling myself that unschooling means I have no agenda and I can always buy him another workbook later when he's ready to actually learn the material.  He kept saying, "I know how to cheat! I know how to cheat! I just look back at the page before!"  This brought him great joy.  And when a new letter was introduced, he just looked back at the page before and saw which one was left over.

I suppose his introduction to R' Winder was enjoyable.  (Except I was annoying.)   He did 6 pages in one sitting.

Friday, January 2, 2015

I was still going back and forth this morning about whether or not Chana should take the scholarship exam for high school.  Making a list of pros and cons:

pros: If Chana does well, it will give the administration insight into her abilities.  This happened to Sarah when she took the BJE exam.  I had told the principal that I didn't want her in the Hebrew honors classes.  She wasn't especially motivated to learn Torah and I didn't think the intense atmosphere that required a lot of studying would help.  She agreed, but a few weeks later when she got the results of the BJE exam she said she hadn't realized how smart Sarah was and she wanted her in the Honors secular track.  This led to a lot of academic satisfaction on Sarah's part in high school (and the Judaic middle track [out of 5 tracks] was perfect for her since that track had intelligent thinkers who were not bogged down by test anxiety).

cons: Chana does not have the test experience that Sarah did.  Chana is slower and less confident on tests.  Might this cause her unnecessary pain and anxiety?

I really wasn't sure.  I asked the principal today.  Her primary concern was that if the test was stressful for Chana, it would create an unnecessary anxiety towards school and tests.  But she said she thinks it's pretty straightforward, and worth it for Chana to take.  And it includes a lot of Yediot Klaliot that Chana will probably know.  I said, "Actually, Chana probably won't know them."

So Chana will take the exam.  She's not thrilled about waking up for a 9am exam.  But she's not overly concerned about the test.

I googled "yediot klaliot" and found a set of online flash cards.  As I suspected, Chana does not know most of these.

I do think that general knowledge is a good thing.  And important.  (Though due to Seth Godin I think we have more flexibility than ever before because of google.)  But although many educators would be horrified that an 8th grader is missing so much basic knowledge, an unschooler knows that the motivated acquisition of knowledge is so quick, so efficient, and so easy, that gaps like these are really nothing to worry about.

I have the luxury of a 5.5 year age gap between my children (it didn't feel like a luxury when it was happening).  Sarah is in her second year of college.  It was nerve-wracking when she was an 8th grader who seemed not very interested in thinking and learning.  But the cognitive and intellectual leaps that go on during the high school years are incredible.  If you unschool and raise your children with the confidence that they can acquire the information or skills when they are interested, they will be happy to do so.  When they are interested or want them as a means to something they are interested in.