Organizing Theory & Artistry

VAHomeschoolers Conference 2014

VAHomeschoolers Conference 2014
Social media at the conference.
Social media at the conference.

Every year, I consider it a mandatory part of my homeschool teaching responsibilities to attend a homeschooling conference. The conferences help me to learn teaching techniques, find new curriculum options, network with other homeschoolers and receive support and encouragement for our homeschooling efforts.

Last year, I attended the HEAV conference, which is aimed primarily at conservative homeschooling families. This year, I went the other direction and attended the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers (VAHomeschoolers) conference, which aims to be broadly inclusive although a majority of their membership seems to be liberal unschoolers. I don’t belong squarely in either one of these groups. I have found, however, that even when I don’t agree with something I end up learning something and taking away lessons that help me and my children.

Broadly speaking, the VAHomeschoolers conference is dominated by language/liberal arts topics. Nearly all of the speakers have college in mind for their children. I have come to appreciate that a focus on language and liberal arts makes for wonderful conference sessions. The speakers all love to talk and they speak and write beautifully. They are completely at ease in front of an audience and their handouts and presentations are well-organized, spell-checked and otherwise perfect. When I went to this conference, it felt like spending a weekend at a small, private liberal arts college.

Below are some of the highlights of my notes from this year’s conference:

Keynote Speaker: Susan Wise Bauer

If you hang out with the VAHomeschoolers crowd, you have to know who Susan Wise Bauer is. She is quite a celebrity in this crowd. I confess I had heard her name before but I wasn’t exactly sure who she was. You can read a profile of her in The Washington Post here.

2014-05-14-welltrainedmind Essentially she is an incredibly intelligent and accomplished expert in languages, literature and history. She was born and raised in Virginia and was homeschooled primarily by her mother, Jessie Wise. She has gone on to homeschool her own four children. Together, mother and daughter wrote The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home and Susan Wise Bauer has gone on to write a popular homeschool history curriculum called The Story of the World. 2014-05-14-storyofworld

The topic of the keynote address was: “Homeschooling the Second Time.” We missed the first 10 minutes or so of her speech so I am not quite sure what context “the second time” meant. I assume it means her experience homeschooling her own children and continuing homeschooling to a second generation. The audience was packed and we actually had to sit on the floor during her lecture.

8 of My Favorite Ideas from Susan Wise Bauer’s Lecture

  • Read a lot of books. Have a lot of books.
  • Limit TV and control all screens in your house.
  • Consider implementing a 2-hour naptime in your homeschooling household, even for kids up through high school. Moms need a rest. Introverts need a break from the other children and extroverted children need to learn how to entertain themselves.
  • Do the bare minimum in subjects you are not interested in or good at.
  • Enroll your children in outside classes.
  • Be careful putting too much energy into teaching co-ops. Sometimes the energy required to participate in a co-op will detract you from your own children’s education.
  • Don’t be in a rush to send your brilliant child to college early. “Some kinds of learning only occur after the sun goes around the earth a certain number of years.”
  • Don’t become so wedded to homeschooling that you ignore opportunities for your children to attend the public schools. “I can educate the brain better but we are educating a whole person.”

Cindy Gaddis: Individualized Education: Identifying Learning Styles

I really wanted to attend this session but since I had my children with me, my son decided that he was not going to behave and we had to leave very soon after it started. Cindy Gaddis is a self-described “20-year homeschooler and the mother of 7 right-brained children.”

Before I left, I got these gems:

4 Inspirations from Cindy Gaddis

  • “My goal is to honor the natural path of creative, right-brained children.”
  • “If you want a different outcome, you need a different system.”
  • “Every person has an innate learning style. This transforms your view of what education can be.”
  • “To determine the learning style of your child, the most reliable source is not tests but observation/determining what the child is interested in.”
2014-05-14-cindygaddis-rightside So, I am incredibly fascinated by this subject and wish I had been able to listen. I did purchase her book, The Right Side of Normal, and look forward to reading it this summer. From the notes and handouts I picked up from this session, the “left brained” learner enjoys all the traditional school subjects, like math, reading, spelling and writing. The “right brained” learned is more prone to creative outlets, history, science, and social studies. Cindy Gaddis provided a handout with suggested books and curriculum materials for each age group.

 

Marjorie Cole and Gwen Peredo McCrea: Organizing for Real World Homeschooling

So, of course, I couldn’t resist this workshop with “organizing” in the title. This was a great session by two homeschooling mothers with different styles. They spoke about how to create a plan/set goals for your homeschooling and then go about executing that plan, taking into account the demands of real life.

Great Quotes from Marjorie Cole and Gwen Peredo McCrea

  • “It will all work out even if I don’t know how.”
  • “I follow the non-insanity approach to homeschooling. We don’t do stuff that drives us crazy.”
  • “In some cases, too much planning can be a form of procrastination and perfectionism.”
  • “It’s OK to be ‘fallow’ for a while and not do very much in your homeschooling sometimes–especially if you have just been very busy.”

There were lots of great real-life anecdotes in this seminar both from the speakers and the women in the audience. I learned the phrase “Mom-stalking,” which is described as making your kids sign up for activities they don’t want to do because one mom thinks the other mom and her kids would be great friends to have.

At this point, my children were not behaving again so we had to exit early. Their handout looks like they went on to discuss specific organizing tools like calendaring, to do lists, prioritization matrices and specific physical tools like hanging files. I’ll have to try to catch this session again another year!

My children had great fun petting the robotic dog that a homeschooler built.  There was a robotics demonstration for kids and I had a great conversation with an eloquent high school aged homeschooler about his participation on competitive robotics teams.
My children had great fun petting the robotic dog that a homeschooler built. There was a robotics demonstration for kids and I had a great conversation with an eloquent high school aged homeschooler about his participation on competitive robotics teams.

Jan Reed: Community College for the High School Years

High school is way off in the distance for us but since both my husband and I have in mind that if our children continue homeschooling through high school, we want them to take at least some community college classes, like math or sciences. Our reasoning is to prove to a prospective college that our children are capable of learning in the traditional college environment and interacting appropriately with their peers.

Jan Reed has been specializing in homeschooling and dual-credit enrollment at Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC) for the past 10 years. Of the 23 community colleges in Virginia, PVCC ranks in the top 5 for academic achievement.

This was a wonderful session with a lot of Q&A from the audience interspersed with her presentation. We learned that PVCC has taken students as young as 10 (but generally for more recreational courses like art or ceramics) but most serious academic subjects require a student to be about 16 (although they evaluate this on a case-by-case basis). We learned that any time a student enrolls in a course bearing official college credit, this will start the college GPA calculation that will follow the student forever.

The first big issue raised was how to know whether a student is ready for community college coursework. Ms. Reed indicated that a good sign is when the student is able to come sit down and chat with her individually (without parents speaking for the children) and indicate what he/she is interested in learning.

To apply, the student fills out a standard application, sends in a homeschool transcript (prepared by the parent), takes placement tests in math and English and meets with Ms. Reed. The mention of math testing put many in the room on edge. It was then clarified that you don’t have to take the math test unless you are taking math or science classes.

The second issue was how such young students fit in with the general community college population. Ms. Reed indicated that at PVCC the faculty LIKE homeschoolers! She said the faculty even go so far as to request that homeschoolers be put into their classes because they are so focused, know how to study and they keep the rest of the class on track. She said that girls tend to blend in better with the class than boys because the girls look more mature.

Of concern to many was how to afford the cost of community college classes. Apparently once a student has officially graduated from homeschool high school (which can be at the discretion of the parent), the student is potentially eligible for federal student loans to help cover the cost of tuition. There are some complex issues involved with this, including transfer credits to 4-year institutions, scholarship considerations, etc. so the timing of financial aid is something best thought through carefully.

Great quote from Jan Reed:

“You can always tell a homeschooling family because their kids are reading books and are not on iPads.”

Amy Wilson: MOOCs for Homeschooling High School and Middle School

Amy Wilson, who has been active in the past on the VAHomeschoolers Board of Directors and is a homeschooling mom of two children, gave a wonderful introduction to MOOCs.

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course and it is a method of online learning where thousands or hundreds of thousands of students can be enrolled in a course at one time. These courses are generally free of charge and do not convey college credit but are generally taught at the college level and offered by many prestigious universities. Anyone can enroll in them and there are no prerequisites for each course. Because there are so many students in a class, there is not much personalized attention from the instructor and it appears all assignments are graded automatically by the computer system (if they are graded at all).

Based on statistics from the moocs.com blog, Ms. Wilson indicated about 60% of all students in MOOCs are not from the United States and the median age is 35. 74% of MOOC students already have Bachelor’s, Masters or Ph.D. degrees. Only about 7% of students enrolled in any given course will ultimately complete it. The primary use of MOOCs seems to be for recreational learning or keeping up to date on developments in a field of study.

Some of the courses Ms. Wilson has tried with her children include: Duke University’s “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue,” UVA’s “How Things Work (an introduction to physics),” Rice University’s “Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python,” and Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s “A Brief History of Humankind.”

I was amazed at how professional the content appears to be in these MOOCs and that many if not most are taught by bona fide college professors! This is a wonderful gift to homeschoolers in particular. It certainly takes away the anxiety of trying to teach material that starts to get beyond your field of expertise. After I learned about these MOOCs, I have no concerns about teaching advanced subjects. If I can’t do it, there is a professor somewhere on a MOOC that will do a brilliant job. These MOOCs will also be great preparation for college work.

Ms. Wilson indicated that when you are using these courses for young children, feel free to drop out at any time if the MOOC is not of interest or too hard. You can also mix in your own material and pick and choose what parts of the MOOC you want to use.

To find a MOOC, you can search on Coursera, EDX or Udacity, some of the biggest MOOC providers. There are other sources as well, including on the websites of many universities.

My attempt at a selfie while on lunch break at the conference.  We had the best spring-like weather!
My attempt at a selfie while on lunch break at the conference. We had the best spring-like weather!

Barbara Smith: You Don’t Wear a Superwoman Cape?

At every homeschooling conference there is always one speaker who is the mother of an extremely large family. Within the homeschooling community, this is the equivalent of inviting a Fortune 100 CEO to speak. These mothers of extremely large families always have something interesting to say.

For the VAHomeschoolers conference, the mother extraordinaire was Barbara Smith, mom of 14! Her children range in age from 10-34 and she is still homeschooling 6 of them. One thing I loved about Barbara Smith was her incredible sense of style.

Barbara Smith's great fashion sense with colorful shawl, dress and black booties.  This really suited her personality.
Barbara Smith’s great fashion sense with colorful shawl, dress and black booties. This really suited her personality.

For some reason, I picture a mother of 14 as worn out and exhausted but Barbara Smith certainly wasn’t. She was full of energy and loved speaking. She spoke so easily and comfortably with warmth and a great sense of humor.

She went over a lot of logistics on how to make a homeschooling home run smoothly, including managing chores, cooking and managing the homeschooling for multiple children. On this last point, she gave some detailed examples of how she was very relaxed as a homeschooler and insisted early on that her children take responsibility for their own education. She didn’t give grades or supervise every math problem. Her philosophy was “I taught my children to be self-learners. Once they have basic reading and writing, work yourself out of a job as quickly as possible.”

2014-05-14-barbarasmith-homeschooling I don’t know that I could ever be as relaxed about my homeschooling as Barbara Smith is but hearing her talk about how this method actually can work certainly gave me food for thought. I bought her book on homeschooling which has a great Q&A format and is much like hearing her speak in person.



Great Quotes from Barbara Smith

  • “If you are miserable, you are doing it the wrong way.”
  • “If you wait until a child can do [chores by themselves], it’s too late! They will view it as [Mom’s] job. This should be everyone’s work.”
  • “Get over glitter. Kids need it! It will get everywhere.”
  • “A lot of projects are messy. Let your home have this.”
  • “The purpose of school is to become an educated human who can function and contribute to the world.”
  • “It goes so fast. If you spend all your time lining up your towels and being angry you will regret it. If you will relax, they will call when they are grown. They will come to visit and work overtime to earn a plane ticket home.”

Julie Bogart: Creating a Language-Rich Lifestyle

Julie Bogart has a well-deserved cult following in the homeschooling world. She homeschooled her five children, worked as a professional writer and created the popular “Brave Writer” series of language arts curriculum and online writing classes. She is an incredibly engaging speaker, so well-spoken, charming and funny. Some conference attendees just sat in her sessions alone for the entire conference!

We have been using Brave Writer’s “The Wand” for our homeschool language arts this year. It has been challenging for me because I have a lot of preparation to do before each lesson but the results have been amazing! The way the text covers language, phonics, spelling and reading has been so helpful to my children.

We plan on using the follow-on series “The Arrow” next fall. I had the chance to chat for a moment with Julie at her booth during one of the breaks and showed her our workbooks for The Wand. She chuckled a bit at my organization because I am far more uptight about implementing her curriculum than she would expect anyone to be. She said she loved seeing family’s workbook materials and even took a picture of ours for reference! I was honored. She also said that The Arrow curriculum will be more of her own Brave Writer philosophy and more relaxed and that The Wand is more structured and was written primarily by an expert on children’s language development.

Julie Bogart in action!
Julie Bogart in action!

For her seminar on “Creating a Language-Rich Lifestyle” she indicates there are 3 key practices: 1) copywork (copying down meaningful words and thoughts) 2) reading aloud and 3) writing. There are also numerous other practices like “Tuesday Teatimes,” “Wednesday Afternoon Movies,” and making sure to spend time one-on-one with each child. There were lots and lots of great suggestions.

At the end of the lecture, however, she gave out the interesting fact that about 60% of a language-rich lifestyle is talking. The remaining 40% is split between reading, writing and having great experiences worthy of writing about. “You need engagement. Talk, talk, talk. For you poor introverts, it’s harder. I’m sorry.”

Great quotes from Julie Bogart

  • “Even professional writers don’t ‘write every day’ but they do engage with writing in some way every day.” (such as editing, reading, etc.)
  • “Think about doing one thing, prepare for it and then while you are doing it, forget about all else! Give this activity your full self. . . . You can get a lot done one thing at a time.”
  • “A need provokes speaking. A want provokes writing.”
  • “When your kids are happy, take note of what you did right.”
  • “It’s OK to have a habit but not drudgery. Keep it fresh.”

Renee Jackson: Preparing Young Learners to Think Mathematically: Logic, Reason and Critical Thinking

If there is any downside to the VAHomeschoolers conference, it is that there are very few conference sessions dedicated to math and science. I was excited to see Renee Jackson’s math oriented session.

Renee Jackson is a homeschooling mother. She struggled personally with geometry and other forms of math in high school and wanted to see if there was a better solution for her own children. Her solution was to relate math proofs to logical language-related proofs.

In theory, if you understood something like:

All oranges are fruits. All fruits grow on trees. Therefore, all oranges grow on trees.

you could just as easily understand:

If A>B and B>C, therefore A>C

It’s a great theory and if any child could actually make these cross-connections in different disciplines it would be a tremendous feat of education!

In practice, however, I wonder if some of us are more wired one way than another. To me, the math question above is far easier than the logic puzzle above it and it gets a bit messy trying to relate one to the other. It seemed to me that for Renee Jackson, the opposite is true for her.

Renee Jackson indicated that she has not yet found a logic-based curriculum for young learners and that she has had to make up her curriculum as she goes along. (Coincidentally, I just heard from a homeschool mailing list about a company called The Critical Thinking Company which offers a logic-based curriculum for ages PreK-12.)

Ms. Jackson gave critical thinking curriculum suggestions for each age range. Some of her helpful suggestions for the 3rd to 6th grade age range are: discuss the difference between an argument and a fight, discuss complex social issues from the newspaper and play logic games (software, board game or paper-based).

To me, Renee Jackson’s session was really about how to translate math concepts to the language arts oriented brain. For many people, math is an anxiety-inducing subject. When I worked at a university, I encountered many students attempting to claim a form of “math disability.” As far as I know, no one, including the U.S. Department of Education, has ever accepted “math disability” as a recognizable condition.

After listening to Renee Jackson’s lecture, I began to appreciate that there might really be such a thing as math disability. Perhaps not a permanent disability where you are incapable of learning math but rather a hardwired brain challenge where you might not interpret math in the same way as others do, making routine math problems harder.

This session gave me a lot to think about. Teaching logic is not something I had really thought about before and now I am trying to figure out how it would work into what we are already doing.

Vendor Marketplace

I didn’t spend too much time in the vendor marketplace but I did come across a few finds:

The Usborne Books booth was very popular.  These wonderful books are colorful with great pictures and layout.  I picked up this book for next year's geography lessons.
The Usborne Books booth was very popular. These wonderful books are colorful with great pictures and layout. I picked up this book for next year’s geography lessons.
Another Usborne find, an interactive lift-the-flap atlas for children.
Another Usborne find, an interactive lift-the-flap atlas for children.

Used Curriculum Sale

The VAHomeschoolers curriculum sale tends to be on the small side. I went through quickly toward the very end of the sale when everything was 50% off. To my great surprise, I found this gem:

2014-05-14-storyoftheworld

All in all, the VAHomeschoolers conference was excellent and very much worth the cost of attendance. I took away so many great ideas and felt renewed and inspired by it.

*I am a member of VAHomeschoolers but otherwise not affiliated with them or any product or vendor mentioned here.