My homeschooled eighth grade son and his partner won a gold medal for their performance in the middle school division Science Olympiad 2011 competition for optics - physics. In Connecticut we have just one tier of competition. This event is a written test with open binder (created by the students) about optics, light, and color, and the second component is a hands on laser shoot with mirrors optics.
Connecticut's competition had (all) 23 events (the same events held at nationals) in six hours time, performed by a 15 member maximum team. Team members divide up in order to cover the events, since they overlap. It is no small task to prepare the team to do such a wide variety of events and to cram them into one day, with rushing from room to room for different types of tests.
This is not a bragging post. This is not just about winning. This post is about learning. It is also about homeschooling and the role of a parent-teacher in the learning process.
I am proud of my son for what he accomplished with the optics event, because he put in hours and hours of work to prepare. This physics material is subject matter usually not taught until grade eleven or twelve. Even conceptual physics is not usually taught in grades 6-8 (the grades this division covers).
To achieve this performance level, I, the homeschooling parent, had to take some extraordinary measures beyond the team's original plan to prepare for the event. My son expressed a desire to learn and do well at the event so I stepped up to the plate, mostly in the last few weeks before the event when I realized just how little my son actually knew despite having attended classes taught by a high school physics teacher to a group of homeschooled kids (last fall).
As the homeschool parent-teacher, I worked to find other textbooks to teach with when the first one textbook was not resulting in real learning. (To my horror) I had to teach myself physics concepts (which I never learned in college or high school) and I had to refresh my memory on algebra and trigonometry in order to teach my son (as he is not doing math at those levels yet). We went by the rules, so thought that would be on the test, in the end, that higher level math was absent from the test.
At one point I didn't really understand what he knew and what he didn't know so I hired an expert. I hired a tutor (just for two hours) who assessed what my son knew, what he thought he knew but was wrong about, and what his outright gaps in content were. My son had gone through classroom learning and but some went over his head and some of it confused him. I saw firsthand that although a good teacher can teach a class it doesn't mean (all of) the learners actually learn the material (or learned it accurately, some kids think they know something when they are incorrect about their knowledge level).
As my son struggled as we learned together, I had to stretch even more than expected, and use internet resources to flesh out our understanding. When one high school textbook didn't work, I found another text. When one website was confusing, I sought more information from other sources. We compared and contrasted the information until it made sense in our minds. I would not stop (nor did he want to stop). I kept revising how and what he was taught with until the subject was actually understood.
I then researched other ways to study as the old-fashioned methods I learned in school do not work for my son. Writing out notes, looking at paper flashcards and such don't help my son, they just confuse him. To access this information I bought and skimmed a couple of books about study tactics. I then taught these to my son. Mind mapping worked especially well for him; he is a very visual-spatial learner. I got that idea from the book Study Smarter, Not Harder.
Though this, I learned some lessons about tenacity and perseverance. Despite friends urging me to encourage my son to son quit rather than to put forth such a concerted effort, we stuck with it. Why? The answer is simple: because my son wanted to learn it, he wanted to compete and he wanted to be prepared. However, he was floundering. As his homeschool parent-teacher I accepted the responsibility to facilitate his home education, so helping him learn this for the Science Olympiad competition was just one part of "doing my job". What I had to do in order to faciliate such learning pushed me to new heights of effort in our homeschooling journey. (It got so hard I wanted to give up at some points.)
I realized if we were able to get that content mastered with effort and information then anything my son needs to learn in homeschool high school could be achieved. (It need not matter what happened at the event, jsut that he felt prepared and that he could demonstrate he'd learned the material, which we both felt was achieved as he walked in to take the tests.)
What it takes to prepare well for an academic competition is knowing what must be learned and following the rules. Then, finding the best materials or finding supplemental materials when the original stuff is not working is important in order to learn the concepts. In order to learn anything, for a competition or not, it takes time, energy, courage, patience, and perseverance. It requires tenacity to push through the tough parts and effort to hurdle over the blockades.
I care far more for the life lessons we both learned by doing this learning endeavor than for the physics concepts, and I care even less about his actually winning a gold medal. Still, it's nice to have some validation that having that medal brings -- to know he performed higher than kids in gifted and talented school programs and some kids in magnet schools focusing on science.
My son competed in two other events as well. One he prepared a decent amount for but it's a chancy event (Write it - Do it) and the other was a very last minute thing thrown at him, a hands on thing he did all by himself at home (Towers). He didn't win medals in those events.
In Towers he misread a poorly written measurement and lost points for that. That failure was okay, because he learned that following directions is critical. Badly written directions may be to blame (adults who later read the rules agreed they were confusing) but in real life what matters is not who is at fault but that you have to do it correctly, period. He also had only 14 days to prepare for that and did it without any teacher or coach direction or oversight, so I think he did pretty well considering the circumstances.
What he learned most of all is what you really try to do, you can achieve. He didn't put enough preparation into the other two events and thus he didn't win a medal in them. Not winning at something that he didn't fully prepare for at is just as good a reinforcement about how to learn and how to achieve something, as trying hard and actually winning.
This year we were the only homeschool team in Connecticut. It is the team's third year in the competition and we ranked 8th overall in the state. It was the first time we'd had a full team and the first time the students competed in all 23 events. I'm proud of the team. I am grateful that my son was able to participate with the team as it has taught both of us important lessons about education and learning.