Saturday, January 26, 2013

Homeschoolers Working Above Grade Level?

The main reason we began homeschooling was so that our children could learn -- actually learn, which meant that the studies could be sped up or slowed down or adapted in any way including working on certain subjects above or below grade level. Of course ideally our children would be working at least at grade level, but even if they were not, due to some deficit such as a learning disability, they'd have that freedom. What we were looking for was a customized education.

What is an ideal homeschool education?

This is up to each family to decide.

In figuring out what an ideal education would look like there were these options, my husband and I thought about these issues.

1. Decide that what the public school did at X grade was not good enough or stupid and to reject doing that. This would include forcing down formal lessons to two year olds in preschool in some attempt to "get ahead" or to try for "early literacy". This would include forcing a child to learn to read when they were not ready. This would include not using ridiculous reading methods when the intensive phonics method of old was superior.

2. Decide what better thing a child of that age could be doing with their time and do that instead. This would include not using a dumbed down lesson plan to teach "my neighbors" for social studies in kindergarten and instead to learn about Ancient Egyptian pyramids, mummies and other much more intellectually stimulating topics.

3. Choose to use interesting materials to learn from and avoid all the boring stuff. Avoid repetition. Avoid drudge work. Avoid busy work. Use documentaries not just books.

4. Focus on learning not on testing.

5. Do real things as much as possible. Avoid worksheets and book learning for every single subject. Add in more hands on activities to make learning interesting. This goes beyond history themed crafts. In our case it also included wilderness school courses similar to Outward Bound and Nature's Classroom.

6. Go places and do things that school kids are unable to do because of time they are forced to be inside the classroom. Have freedom to travel more and do great things while in different places. Do things that are worthwhile but are out of reach of the public school's budget. Focus on family learning field trips rather than group activities because our kids would focus better on the subject matter when with just family.

7. Have more efficient learning activities that didn't monopolize all their day so they could have psychologically and developmentally appropriate free play time for optimal childhood development. Have time for developing friendships.

8. Use materials or different teaching methods to achieve learning if the traditional way of teaching was not working. This applies to all kids, but really helps kids struggling with a learning disablity or medical problem that impedes learning for a season or for multiple years.

9. Avoid long homework such as school requires in order to make time for extra-curricular group activities on afternoons and weekends.

10. Have time for physical fitness exercise for good health.

Working Toward Mastery

My husband and I believe that working toward mastery is a superior way to learn, instead of allotting a certain time frame to learn subject X then moving on when the date arrives.

This means, for example, that with our spelling words, the word does not disappear on Friday if the word was not yet mastered. The tricky word stays on the spelling list until our students master the spelling of that word.

Math, reading, spelling, grammar, and other skills are easy to recognize mastery in. Other topics, and in the higher grade levels, can be harder to assess if the work that is being done is not easy to rate, grade, rank and measure. However if working toward mastery, you have to figure out how to assess mastery, and if testing is the choice, you soon realize that it is a flawed way to test mastery. Testing requires that a test be given on a certain date. What if the learning is achieved after that date?

To illustrate: Algebra I systems of linear equations. The student does the lesson and the work and scores 11/12 on the practice work. The student goes back and figures out what went wrong with that one problem. The student takes a test and messes something up and scores an 83. (If in school at this point the class would move on to the next topic and the student's time would be taken up with the new material.) But, our homeschooled student does not advance to the next lesson right this second, they now go back and revisit that content again and do even more practice to help them learn what they had not mastered, later scoring 100% on practice examples. Should the student bother to be re-tested? That's your decision. If the student is tested on that same topic and tests at 100%,  how do you grade this student? Do you ignore that 83 and use the new 100 score since mastery was now attained? Do you average the two scores, and if so, why would you choose to do that? If a score is to measure true learning and the student has it all mastered the 100% should stand, not 91.5, the average of the two scores, in my opinion. Ask yourself why it is important to rate a student based on what they knew on last week's date versus what they learned and mastered for content a week later. Is it not important that the content was mastered and learning did occur with 100% success?

Another question to ponder is if real learning is a goal, does mid-term and final course testing serve a purpose? I am still trying to wrap my mind around that. One might say that if true learning is to be achieved it should be able to be measured by an end of the year test. Others may aruge that cramming memorization of material such even reminding oneself of the exact definitions of hundreds of science vocabulary terms is a dumb exercise. Does that measure true learning? This is debatable because even when scoring well on a mid-term test most students forget most of the content before the time to take the final test and have to review it and cram to get it into their short-term memory. The more we learn about the brain and how the brain's memory works the more we realize that most of what we experience and learn in life does not remain in long term memory for immediate recall should we desire to remember it.

This mastery issue comes into play when thinking about what "on grade level" means.

Above Grade Level

I was asked what I think about working above grade level in our homeschool. This very question begs pondering. In order to figure out what is "grade level" you have to trust the opinions of some strangers. There is not firm concensus on what "on grade level is". Different people have different definitions of "grade level". Do you want to trust those people? Why? In the early years when childhood development is so swift this is the most mushy. One child can read at three and another at five and another gets it at six, thanks to brain development.

When homeschooling does it really matter what the grade level is? In our family the main reason to declare a grade level was for admittance to sports, Scouts, and even homeschool paid group classes. I go by the date of birth year. But I digress.

Do any these artificial measurements of grades really mean anything anyway?

When using packaged homeschool curriculum or curriculum intended for schools you will see these lines drawn about grade level. Also content gets chopped up and split up by grades not always because it is on grade level but because you have to divide up the content in some manner and spread it over time. For example to split up science topics, it is not that weather is a topic that only a fourth grader can understand or that a child must be sixteen before they are introduced to the term atom. But other topics are taught year after year, such as English grammar. Some feel they are over-taught. Someting like spelling words and vocabulary should fit easily into a grade level list but you will always have students working below, at, or above grade level who will either struggle, find it mildly challenging or too easy.

My son is in tenth grade and we are reading The Great Gatsby. He asked to read this now before the movie is released "because the book is always better than the movie". When looking at high school English courses for college prep I see a common theme. Grade nine introduces or reintroduces plot, character, etc and they study two or three whole fiction books, read a lot of excerpts in the textbook, short stories, read poetry and one play. In grade ten the same thing happens all over again with general content with a span of old and modern literature (fiction books, excerpts, short stories, poetry and one play). (When I see some of what is read I ask myself why was THAT selected when it seems silly or stupid or unremarkable.) Grade eleven is often American Literature and grade twelve is often British Literature or World Literature. So does this mean that by reading The Great Gatsby in grade ten that my son is "working above grade level". I don't think so. Should I count this book in his grade 10 literature course but have it as a gaping hole as it is usually a staple in American Lit? Should I plug that title onto his grade eleven course instead? Dates can be mushy in homeschooling. Since outside parties such as college admissions officers like to see content areas pigeon-holed into traditional school courses it would benefit my son to have Fitzgerald's book in grade 11's American Lit course.

Math can easily be deemed into grade levels although the content will vary from curriculum to curriculum. At which grade are fractions introduced? They value different things, some stress mental math while others us the new Chicago math and others use the old fashioned methods from my childhood including memorization of multiplication tables.

I feel each homeschooled student should be challenging themselves and not doing work that is "their grade level" and being bored and scoring 100s and then act smug about being smart. Instead, do work at their level, if that is a year or two ahead in math, so be it. Just please don't get braggy about it to others, no one wants to hear it! The parent you brag to may have a child even more advanced than you but they keep quiet out of a desire to be humble.

For the sake of this discusion I will share personal details. In the arithmetic years my younger son was working two grades ahead. Due to busy-ness and choosing to do other things his math time slowed so in grade six he finished a grade seven arithmetic program and stared on pre-algebra, which some kids don't do until grade seven or eight. In grade seven he is solidly working at pre-algebra, some of which he already did last year but already forgot. His gap of being ahead is slowing down now. That's fine by me. We're not in a race although for certain college majors he should be on track to do at least Pre-Calculus if not Calculus by the end of grade 12. Ideally he'd finish and master pre-algebra in grade 7 and start with Algebra I in grade 8.

Abstract math such as algebra needs certain brain developmental changes to have taken place before the student can handle it. I knew of a boy in grade six who started algebra through a rigorous online course and with an advanced curriculum who spent three hours a day seven days a week trying to get through the material. The kid and his mother were stressed out so after one semester they moved away from that course. (Thank goodness!) Formerly she took pride in saying her son was years ahead in math. What is the point of pushing an advanced math onto a student who is not yet ready? I felt this was most likely a case of "the struggle" being brain development issue. There is sometimes a time in preteen's development where the arithmetic is easy and was mastered but they can't yet handle algebra - that is normal.

Then again if a kid is a math whiz and can do higher maths without unhealthily stressing them out, go ahead and do it. There is a difference between working ahead and having too much of a struggle and working ahead and feeling appropriately challenged. Working ahead should be at the student's pace not the choice of the mother who might just want bragging rights to say her child is ahead. Education is about the child not the mother's ego.

Another example is at a co-op my seventh grader was to use a volume two of the writing curriculum which the writer said was grade 9-12. He really struggled. The program was supposed to be used after completion of volume one, which my son didn't do, so he wasn't prepared. I brought him back to volume one which was labeled for use up through the end of grade 8. He finds this easy. Learning is more fun and casual now. And it could be said that he is still working ahead of grade level if he finishes this in grade seven.

Early readers who find the leveled reading books too easy may be able to read above grade level. True reading comprehension is questionable, especially if the child is left to read on their own. It may feel good to brag that our ten year old has read Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird but did they get all the nuances? Do they even know what rape is? Do they know about racism and attitudes in the South in those time periods? Their limited knowledge base of history and culture may make them miss quite a lot that the parents assume they understood.

Graduating Early

I know of some homeschoolers who used a school in a box curriculum based on what schools do and crammed the easy work to be done fast, such as working six days a week and working through the summer. I know of two girls in a family who graduated at 12 and 11 years old in this manner. I read an autobiography of a family who was spanked and worked six days a week, through the summer, and rarely was allowed to take a sick day. In this way the oldest graduated at sixteen.

I would ask that you ponder what that means to use an easy curriculum and to graduate early. That same student could have done things like participated in some extra-curricular activities or done projects or did deeper learning and graduated at eighteen instead. Is a fourteen year old homeschool graduate smarter and more knowledgable than a deep learner who didn't use a school in a box program at eighteen? I doubt it.

I'll leave the discussion there without getting into AP classes and dual credit courses taken in the high school years at community college or four year colleges.

Please leave your thoughts if you wish to discuss this interesting topic.


Deborah said...

The idea of school as something to "get through" quickly and easily flies in the face of our family's engagement in life long learning. We've never used a boxed curriculum even when we were more structured, which was actually quite a lot less structured than most, although we have used math texts of many different kinds, having not yet found the approach that works for all. (I'm still waiting for my latest try on this to come through the looks a lot like an integrated approach ...pun intended... that I've tried before, but because I only started and someone else has done the whole thing, the previous edition of this well regarded text might be just what I'm looking for.) Many of the world's people have to spend every bit of their brainpower and drive merely to survive at the most basic level. We have the great luxury of being able to devote a great deal of time and energy to challenging projects: mastery of our own and other languages, the basics of science and mathematics, the arts, history, house maintenance, sports...why should we waste our time on a curriculum that doesn't interest or challenge? Side note on AP courses: the ones I've had described to me embody the very things I loathe: rote memorization, high stakes testing. As for dual credit, I haven't had anyone do that officially, but the college courses my middle child has been permitted to attend since age 15 (doing the same work as the other students) have been enormously valuable. Our college has a number of ensembles that are "town and gown", due to the small size of the college and the remote location of the town, and it was an easy step from there to sitting in on some classes that had only students. The college has a different feel from the high schools (which everyone is glad to get out of) because most of the students, especially in the classes she's attended, have been there by choice.

Ahermitt said...

My daughter is graduating "early". Or so it seams. She is graduating early because she will be 16 on graduating day and for a few years after. She is not graduating early because she finished the bare minimum required of a typical high school curriculum and so she is done. She has far exceeded high school standards in many areas and in other areas she has gone as far as I can facilitate. She is ready for adventure and ready for the next step, so with a college course carefully chosen for optimal safety at such a young age, she is graduating this spring.

Xa Lynn said...

The whole concept of grade level annoys me. My children find some subjects very easy, and struggle with others, so they are all over the place in terms of grade level. I refuse to hold them back when they excel, and I refuse to force them onto concepts for which they lack the prerequisite knowledge. We work for mastery, which means we don't leave a topic until they can explain it to me in their own words, and/or they can do 90% of the problems correctly. Spelling words stay on the list until they are correct. Not doing this would result in the holes in their education that children in public schools so often suffer.

My children are different in terms of their learning styles, and their best/worst subjects. I use completely different math curricula for them, because one child loves the computer and works independently, while the other prefers stories, despises the computer, and needs supervision to stay on task. Fortunately, both children adore audiobooks, and read-alouds.

Boxed curricula would never work for us because my children are so different. I keep trying different methods for each child until we find the one that works for that child. Because I determine the information we will cover, I tend to tie subjects together - history of the Middle Ages included fictional literature set in that period. Ornithology this year has included art lessons on drawing the bird nests in our yard, memorizing many poems about birds, and taking care of our chickens. Handwriting is always a Bible verse that relates to a topic we are studying. I think it is an unfortunate failure of the modern public school system that by the time students reach middle school, their subjects no longer relate to each other, or emphasize knowledge held in common. I think better retention and understanding of all subjects are achieved when students write biographies of scientists for science class, and demonstrate science experiments for speech class, and balance the actual family budget for math and home economics.

I do not care whether my children "graduate" early or not. If they demonstrate to me that they are prepared to take courses for dual credit at the community college, or simply for college credit, I will arrange for that. If they do not demonstrate willingness to do that, then we won't do it. Neither situation is any commentary on the worth of my children, or their education. I'm grateful that the option is there, but not emotionally attached to it as the one "best" way to go.

Learning is a lifelong process, and the best gift I could give my children is a love for learning and the knowledge of how they learn best.

Ahermitt said...

came back to read comments realize I miss-spoke. Daughter will be 16 for a few MONTHS past graduation.. not years!

Lanaya said...

I graduated one year early from high school after pushing through an easy curriculum. I so wish now that I had either taken my time and savored the work or at least planned a better way to spend that last year at home with no schooling to do. I worked full time at McDonalds instead (which is something, I guess) and was stressed out and bored to tears all at the same time. Anyway, I don't mind kids finishing early if they happen to. But pushing to get it done just because..... I don't see the reason for it. I knew other homeschoolers who graduated early and went on to college early and they were not developmentally ready for it. It just wasn't the best of ideas. Not that it's that way for everyone. We have 13 years of schooling and then more is expected for college ~ that's a lot more than others in generations past have gotten and they were plenty educated (because the content they did in those short years was meaningful and remembered. We repeat so much info for kids now expecting that they didn't get it the first time and need to review as you mentioned above). I'm jabbering now. But I am not pushing my kids to read by age 3 (as many a mom I've heard unwittingly brag about), and I'm not pushing them into advanced math, and I'm not pushing them to graduate early. So be it if those things happen to happen.

ChristineMM said...

Lanaya thanks for sharing your story.

I worked at McDonald's for a few months when I was a teen. Horrible then, probably still just as horrible.