Learning

The New Home School

Posted on Jun 15, 2010 in Featured, Learning | 10 comments

The New Home School

This is Part IX of the series Kindergarten Considerations in which I have been discussing (and wrestling with) the considerations behind the seemingly innocuous decision of where to send my four year old son to school in the fall. Some of our top options have included Montessori education and Waldorf Education. Today we are talking about homeschooling. Homeschooling certainly isn’t what it used to be. As I child of 11 or so, I knew one girl who was homeschooled. It was for religious reasons and it seemed strange to me. I think we often envision homeschoolers as shunning society in general, studying by light of an oil lamp in a cabin far from any possibility of the negative aspect of socialization. When people mention homeschooling, one of the first responses is often related to the child’s need to play with peers. That and “I couldn’t do it – my kids drive me crazy!” Let’s begin by saying that homeschool has evolved far beyond that stereotype. For one thing, mainstream culture seems much more accepting of homeschooling, perhaps not as an option for themselves but at least as an option for those who choose it. The Canadian magazine Today’s Parent actually had a feature article on homeschooling in their May 2010 issue. Secondly, it’s much more widespread than it used to be. The article above puts the number of Canadian homeschoolers at 80,000 and at 2 million in the US. Perhaps this is why the average person no longer regards homeschooling families as freaks – many people know at least one family who is homeschooling and realises that they have legitimate reasons for doing so and also, that their kids are thriving. Beyond that, what does homeschooling look like these days? In BC, provided you follow some kind of educational plan, you can school your child at home in any way you choose. That might mean registering at the local school but teaching at home and having access to resources at the school (if your local school is open to working this way). As the Today’s Parent article points out, there is financial incentive for schools to work together with homeschooling families because the government provides funds to the school to cover homeschool students registered there. Alternatively, you could register your child in a distance education program where the child will follow a specific curriculum but complete it at home. In the past this was done via correspondence with workbooks and texts received through the mail. Technology has revitalized this system but it remains essentially the same. However, there are increased opportunities for interacting with virtual classmates and teachers with the advent of chat rooms, message boards and Skype. There are multiple programs that fall into this category of learning including those that follow very closely the public school curriculum and those that use unit based learning for instance which might involve learning science, math, English and history all through the lens of a particular theme. These programs may also be religion based if that is important to you. In these programs you are responsible to follow the curriculum as set out by the program you have registered with which includes meeting deadlines, completing tests and reports (if there are any) on time etc. You can also register your child as an independent learner and then you can choose how you want to teach. On this side of things, you then have the option of registering in a program that supports independent learning or going it completely on your own. From what I understand, if you choose the latter option, you are then responsible to report to the ministry about your educational goals and progress. The sheer number of possibilities can actually be very overwhelming. Luckily, homeschooling was demystified for me 7 years ago when we began living with my sister the first year she started homeschooling her 4 children. I’ve had a chance to see up close how it works and I have an excellent person to ask for help and advice. Nevertheless, I should also say that one...

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Outdoor Education

Posted on Jun 8, 2010 in Featured, Learning, Parenting | 17 comments

Outdoor Education

Living in the Pacific Northwest means that the winter is dark, gray, rainy, and wet. As you can imagine, we have rubber boots and rain gear so that we can still get outside in the middle of winter, but I will be honest with you: we really don’t do it a lot. Come summer though, we practically live outside. The days are long and bright. The weather is warm, not hot enough for my liking, but we make up for that with the lack of bugs. There are plenty of opportunities for fun in our backyard and around our lovely corner of the world. There are so many amazing things about outdoor play: the opportunity to blend play with exercise and fresh air, the ability to create unique and imaginative play spaces with fewer restrictions than you might have indoors, the possibilities for open-ended play because there are fewer toys outdoors.  One of my favourite things about outdoor play is the way that being in nature inspires learning. From the time he could walk, Rain loved bugs. This is probably where his outdoor education began as we started turning over rocks in the back yard to find pill bugs, snails, banana slugs, ants, ladybugs and spiders. He learned their names and where they were most likely to be found. He has an observation jar (clean peanut butter jar with holes in the lid and the labels removed) where he keeps the specimens he catches so he can watch them. We do enforce one observation jar rule that all critters be released at bedtime each day so they don’t starve or miss their mothers too much. From there he started learning plant identification. Daddy is an arborist so we tend to notice and talk about trees quite a bit. By the time Rain was two and a half, he knew how to spot a weeping willow, a mountain ash (rowan tree) and a Japanese maple. Some great books to incorporate when learning about trees and shrubs are the Flower Fairies series by Cicely Mary Barker. We have the Flower Fairies of the Autumn book which has lovely illustrations and poems for Oak tree, Rowan tree, Dogwood, Blackberry, Rosehips and more. He would point and call out the names of trees he noticed when we drove around town. There are many tree related learning activities you can use to continue the conversation after you move indoors or as you explore the forest. You can: Talk about the shapes of leaves. Gather a whole bunch of different ones and paint them and use them to make prints on paper. Discuss the difference between conifers and deciduous. A fun story to listen to at the same time is The Evergreens by Odds Bodkin (find it at your local library on CD). Compare the size of a seed to the size of a mature tree. Talk about the different types of tree seeds/flowers there are: samaras, catkins, cones, acorns or other nuts like horse chestnuts etc. (Oh and by the way, they aren’t called pine cones if they’ve fallen from a hemlock or a cedar tree. My husband has pointed this out to me more times than I care to admit.) You can also compare the size of cones from different evergreen trees. Identify the shapes of different trees. Are they triangular, oval shaped, bell shaped, globe shaped? Talk about the life cycle of plants over the seasons – this is particularly obvious for trees in fall and spring of course. When Rain was 3.5 years old we moved to a new house where we had a yard that was big enough to plant a veggie garden. This created many new opportunities for outdoor learning as he helped us plant seeds. He learned that they need warmth and water to grow, that when they first sprout there are usually only two leaves and that sometimes the sprout is still wearing the seed case like a hat. (A great book that talks about seeds in called A Seed is Sleepy).  He learned about transplanting bedding...

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Wondering About Waldorf

Posted on Mar 21, 2010 in Featured, Learning | 4 comments

Wondering About Waldorf

This is Part VIII of the series Kindergarten Considerations in which I have been discussing (and wrestling with) the considerations behind the seemingly innocuous decision of where to send my four year old son to school. The next two posts are dedicated to a discussion of our top options. We already looked at Montessori education. Today we’re talking about Waldorf schools. I have only known about Waldorf schools for a few years. The concept gradually seeped into my consciousness and I can’t remember what I first heard about it or from whom. We were living in Vancouver. Aaron came home from work one day and told me that a client had been explaining Waldorf to him and that it sounded really interesting. I had heard of the school before then but that was the most I knew of it for a long time. From there, I learned little bits here and everywhere. I’ve learned the most about Waldorf education in the last four months. Before then it was just this nebulous alternative school. There is a new initiative in our area to start a Waldorf school. There have been previous attempts over the years that have petered out. This particular initiative looks poised to happen. The intent is to open the doors in Sept 2010 with Kindergarten and grade 1, and to add a grade each year. There may be as few as 10 kids enrolled in the first year. I have mixed feelings about this but I will come back to that. First, some background on Waldorf schools for those of you who know little about it. Sometimes called Steiner Schools, the concept for the school is based on the thoughts of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was a philosopher who was asked to develop the curriculum for children of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory workers in Stuttgart and this is where Waldorf schools come from. In a nutshell, the Waldorf philosophy believes that the child should be approached on their own level which in the early years is primarily through play and imagination. Especially in the early years, the belief is that children learn best through imitation so the teacher plays the role of guide and model. There is a lot of emphasis on the natural world, on yearly celebrations, on community. Children write and draw to create their own textbooks. Many of the learning concepts are taught through the use of stories and over the years, children cover folk & fairy tales, fables, Greek myths, and more. In addition to regular academic studies, Waldorf schools also teach art, hand crafts (like knitting), gardening, music (every child learns to play an instrument), foreign language, a kind of dance/creative movement called Eurythmy. They have outdoor play time and also circle time with stories and songs. Contrary to the Montessori method which is very individually driven, Waldorf schools structure the day around often coming together as a group. You can learn more about the philosophy here or here. Waldorf schools, like Montessori schools, vary greatly in their implementation because they are run independently. It’s not like a franchise restaurant where your burger will be the same in Medicine Hat as in Chicago. As such, I’m sure there are good schools and not so good. One of the criticisms I have heard of various Waldorf schools is that they can seem rather cultish. I am not sure if that is a reference to the emphasis on natural rhythms which might feel too close to paganism for some families’ comfort or if it is due to a perception of over-adherence to the teachings of a single individual. The focus on the fairy stories, arts and natural world rhythms strikes some families as being too out there, hippie, airy-fairy or pagan. I’m not overly worried about any of those but I certainly see how some mainstream, conservative families may feel that they wouldn’t fit in the larger community of the school even if they are interested in the education for their children. At the risk of totally putting my foot in my mouth, my impression...

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Maybe Montessori

Posted on Mar 4, 2010 in Featured, Learning | 6 comments

Maybe Montessori

This is Part VII of the series Kindergarten Considerations in which I have been discussing (and wrestling with) the considerations behind the seemingly innocuous decision of where to send my four year old son to school. The next three posts are dedicated to a discussion of our top three options. This post looks at Montessori. Amber from Strocel.com recently pointed out that it’s going to be impossible to find a perfect school and I know she is right. I am aware in some deep recess of my brain that I can’t be too picky. I have to be realistic. I think we all choose the best option for us, for our circumstances. The director of Rain’s preschool has also reminded me (rightly) that no matter what school we choose, it’s going to come down to the teacher whether or not it’s a good fit for him. With that said, let me warn you that in the next few posts I will be picking apart all of our options. Which isn’t to say that I won’t choose one of them in the end. I should add my little disclaimer here that my comments about particular schooling philosophies represent my impression based on preliminary research and reflect our own family educational goals. My comments are not intended to suggest that a particular philosophy may not be the right choice for your family. Montessori A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that we were attending an info session for the local publicly run Montessori program. I went to the evening with an open mind and felt excited about checking it out. I only knew the bare minimum about Montessori. I knew that it had been around for about 100 years, that it was started in Italy by Maria Montessori and that it’s generally regarded as a very good alternative schooling program.  I also knew that the children are allowed to roam freely around the room and choose materials to work with as they like. So far so good. The first thing they did at the info session was show us this video to introduce us to the basics of Montessori education. The learning materials and environment are intriguing and beautiful. I was encouraged by some aspects of the philosophy: the emphasis on self-directed learning and the addition of non-academic units like practical life. The staff, teachers and our local society seem sincere, dedicated and earnest. But the reality of the program here didn’t mesh with the fairy tale in the above video. The school, a former middle school, was large and imposing. The room on the second floor, though filled with Montessori materials was utilitarian with only two windows at one end of the room, located above a 3 foot counter. I tried to imagine my son trying to see out the windows or walking to his classroom, through wide corridors and up long flights of stairs. It didn’t feel very accessible to a five year old. In and of themselves those issues could be dealt with. It would only take a few weeks for Rain to get used to the immensity of the place. I feel more bothered by the lack of accessible windows really. But I also think back to when I would pick up my niece from Kindergarten. Everything in that whole wing of her school was kid size: tiny toilets, tiny water fountains, coat hooks at knee level, bright windows. Taylour’s kindergarten reminded me of my own and I wonder how is it that school has changed so much in the last 10 years that we no longer try to approach the child on their level? Moving on though. My impression of the space quickly bled into my impression of the philosophy. Keep in mind that I was there in the evening so I wasn’t able to observe children in the classroom, but to me, the program felt cold. Though the video talks about how much fun the children have while they are learning, we also heard repeatedly that the children would not be playing with the materials;...

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Let Them Play

Posted on Feb 19, 2010 in Featured, Learning | 10 comments

Let Them Play

This is Part VI of the series Kindergarten Considerations in which I have been discussing (and wrestling with) the considerations behind the seemingly innocuous decision of where to send my four year old son to school. I had promised to share my thoughts on our options in this post but I got totally distracted by the idea that maybe school isn’t necessary at all. Rain can’t recite the whole alphabet; it still gets a bit jumbled and he doesn’t yet recognize all of the letters. He can recite to 10 when he feels like it and when he tries he can reliably count objects in groups up to 4 or 5. He doesn’t write his name. He wrote the letter R on the back of his Valentines but often elaborated by adding wheels, arms or flowers. I am totally fine with that. Here’s the deal. I have complete confidence in my kids’ abilities. They both demonstrate to me every day that they are very bright. I don’t care what age they learn to write their name or say the alphabet or count or read. I know with 100% certainty that they will do it and at their own pace. There will be plenty of time in the coming years for them to focus on academics and I don’t believe that they will be at a disadvantage from learning to read at 7 instead of 4 for instance. In fact, a recent study from New Zealand has proven that very thing. By age 11, there was no difference between kids who learned to read at 7 and those who learned at 4. “One theory for the finding that an earlier beginning does not lead to a later advantage is that the most important early factors for later reading achievement, for most children, are language and learning experiences that are gained without formal reading instruction,” says Dr Suggate. “Because later starters at reading are still learning through play, language, and interactions with adults, their long-term learning is not disadvantaged. Instead, these activities prepare the soil well for later development of reading.” “This research then raises the question; if there aren’t advantages to learning to read from the age of five, could there be disadvantages to starting teaching children to read earlier (at age 5). In other words, we could be putting them off,” he says. The above passage makes several striking observations in only a few short sentences. First, that the most important factors for later literacy are “early language and learning, while de-emphasising the importance of early reading.” Second, that play is vital for early learning. Third, it raises the question of what harm we could be doing by teaching reading too early. I have heard elsewhere that teaching reading before 11 for instance, shapes our brains in a linear order and can hamper our abilities to think laterally. These three observations alone are reason enough for me to feel relaxed about Rain’s academic career. We’ve got time for Rain to be a kid. We can focus on formal reading instruction in a couple of years. There are so few years in life when we are truly free of pressures, truly free to play. I want him to play, partly because it’s fun and partly because he is learning even while he plays. He is learning about respect,  gravity, problem solving, shapes, empathy, conservancy, conflict resolution, following instructions, developing hand-eye coordination and fine-motor skills, and more all day, just by playing and experimenting. Interestingly, educators are starting to chime in about the importance of play. Last year,  the Alliance for Childhood published a report, Crisis in the Kindergarten, about the lack of play in Kindergarten in the US. This report explained that there was too much instruction, too much testing, too much homework and not enough child-directed play. A New York Times article on the Crisis in the Kindergarten report discussed the lack of play in classrooms and also touched on some thoughts on creativity that are similar to those of Sir Ken Robinson. Thinkers like Daniel Pink have proposed...

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Fire Together, Wire Together: Early School Experience

Posted on Feb 11, 2010 in Featured, Learning, Parenting | 3 comments

Fire Together, Wire Together: Early School Experience

This is Part V of the series Kindergarten Considerations. In this series I am discussing (and wrestling with) the considerations behind the seemingly innocuous decision of where to send my four year old son to school. I promise to share my thoughts on some of our specific options in Part VI. I can’t promise to tell you what we decide because I still have no idea. I’ve been struggling a lot with some of the ideas that came up in my last post for this series. There’s a part of me that wants not to take the idea of registering Rain for Kindergarten so seriously. There’s a part of me that acknowledges that while public school isn’t the ideal learning environment in my opinion, in most cases it isn’t malevolent either. Many (the majority of?) public school teachers are incredibly dedicated and genuinely interested in their students’ success. I did well in public school myself. It is hard not to sound terribly elitist when claiming that public school isn’t good enough for our family. I can imagine the unspoken retort: “It was good enough for all of us and we all turned out fine. Get over yourself.” But I have to balance all of this with the undeniable fact that we are indeed shaped by our experiences. There’s a saying in psychology that neurons that fire together, wire together. Keep in mind that this is a layman’s description (I’m no psychologist) but what this means is that when we do something like painting or math for instance, neurons in certain centres of our brain fire (release neurotransmitters into the synaptic space between neurons) and activate the neurons next to them to fire as well in a sort of chain reaction. Sometimes these are called pathways. Imagine that the more you practice painting or math, the more times you walk down the pathway, you wear in the trail. It gets easier and easier to walk that pathway: you can put down your machete, you’re no longer stumbling and losing your way. Eventually these neurons that fire together, wire together. They create a strong network that fires in unison. This process happens in everything we do, from practicing a skill to overindulging in emotions like anger, and it actually shapes our brains. Unused pathways whither away. Frequently travelled pathways become like super-highways. Melodie from Breastfeeding Moms Unite left a comment on a recent post in this series that really startled me into thinking about this topic in a new way. I had all of the info to make this leap myself but it wasn’t until I read her comment that it all clicked. I know that I am a direct product of my education. I am very concrete and literal, and have a need to get things Right. It’s not something I want to pass on to my kids. I’ve always thought that I did well in school because my brain happens to be organized in the way that the school system is organized. My linear, chronological brain is perfectly in line with a linear, chronological, orderly school system, right? My husband with his right-brain, lateral, spatial thinking is one of the ones who struggles in this set up, right? This is partly true. But wait a minute, according to “neurons that fire together, wire together,” according to Dr. Siegel’s TED talk on how over-emphasis on academics actually changes the architecture of the brain, I am actually a product of our school system. Yes, I probably had an advantage in the beginning because I do have a preference for linear thinking. But over the years, the school system wore that pathway deeper and deeper into my brain’s structure. I see myself in Melodie’s quote above. I think sheepishly of some of my rigidness, my perfectionism, my inability to go with the flow. I think back to the enrichment program in grade 4 when we did a unit of art appreciation on Marc Chagall and in the end painted our own autobiographical Chagall impression. I think of the other skills I have...

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