3 Things I Took With Me from Public School

Before I became an accidental homeschooler, I was an on-purpose middle school and high school teacher. I loved it and I hated it, but mostly, I loved it. It was hard, it was fun and sometimes I cried and I (thought) bad words. But, I was actually pretty good at it and I’d like to share three things that worked then that I find are still working now.

1. When I first began teaching, my amazing mentor told me, “You bring the fun – or they will. And you’ll never like the fun they come up with.” If content is uninteresting, delivery is boring and activities are humdrum ho-hum, you can guarantee that your classroom will swiftly devolve into a zoo. When working with beginning teachers who were struggling to manage their classrooms, this was one of the FIRST things I considered. And it is still true in my homeschool, enrollment two. If I don’t tie the content to my children’s interest, or I dish up the same-old same-old every day, or I fail to frequently incorporate the kinds of activities they enjoy, we are going to have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad school day.

Which brings me to…
2. Learning styles matter. Learning styles refer to the preferred way a person learns. Think about yourself and how you like to learn new things. Do you like to read a book? Would you prefer to watch a movie or video or listen to a recording presenting the material or skill? Or, would you learn best if you actually got up and did the thing alongside a master teacher? Most people have one dominant learning style, with a secondary style as well. Most adults can manage to learn in a number of different ways because we have been conditioned to do so – and it makes it rather convenient since many of us have to listen to presentations, read books or trade journals or watch videos for our jobs. However, forcing children to “learn” in a way that is not their preferred style much of the time is torturous both for the teacher and the child. Teaching in their preferred style helps make sure that at least some of the planned activities are those they enjoy.

But what about the necessary activities they don’t enjoy? (And I realize there is an entire school of thought that says children should only do activities they enjoy. But, I’m just not running that kind of joint.)

For those times when an activity is not interesting or fun, I suggest…

3. “Probably so, but nevertheless…” This was a phrase I learned at a conference my first year teaching and it has served me well. For example, Scooter loathes math fact flashcards. I have chosen this practice method for two reasons. First of all, not everything can be cute and fun – I simply am not going to make up a puppet show or game for everything we do. (I may never make up a puppet show in fact.) Secondly, in the case of math facts, a recent study suggests that cutesy little games and activities aren’t nearly as good as old-fashioned “drill and kill.” In fact, worksheets and flashcards may be the absolute best way to teach math facts. Do we do some games? Sure. Do we do some hands-on activities? Absolutely. But sometimes, we do flashcards. And Scooter hates them. More than he hates broccoli, which is saying something.

But this is where, “Probably so, but nevertheless” really comes in handy.,


Scooter: I HATE flashcards!

Me: Probably so, but nevertheless, we are going to do them.

Scooter: They are BORING and STUPID!

Me: Probably so, but nevertheless, it is time for flashcards.

Scooter: I can’t wait for them to be OVER!!!

Me: Probably so, but nevertheless, here we go!

Notice the following things about this handy phrase. “Probably so….” acknowledges the child’s feelings. “Probably so….” allows the child to save face because no disagreement is stated. “Probably so” presents no counter-argument. (Why not? Because in the throes of battle, it is not fruitful for me to argue the benefits of flashcards. Scooter does not give two fat farts about how flash cards affect his brain synapses, or about how they are the building blocks for math and science (his favorite subjects) or about the virtues of obedience or how hard I worked to make them. He just HATES them and he is mad!)

“Probably so” acknowledges all of that, skips the argument and moves right on to, “Nevertheless….” which is firm and assertive – and I keep repeating it until Scooter figures out it’s do the damn cards or hear, “Probably so, but nevertheless” on repeat ad infinitum.

Try this phrase. Really. Everyone who has tried it has grown to love it as much as I do. (My cohort wanted to get tee shirts made, but we never did. Nevertheless, it’s a great phrase.) Then, let me know how it went.

So, in summary, bring the fun, teach to your child’s learning style and remember, “Probably so, but nevertheless…” covers a multitude of wrongs.

And finally, I want to say that public school – and especially public school teachers – have many strengths. I know there are bad apples and bad schools, but most I have ever encountered are well-educated, highly skilled professionals committed to learning more, doing better and giving all they have to their students. This post was inspired by yet another thing I read today slamming public schools and public school teachers – and it made me mad and it hurt my heart. We homeschool because it’s best for our family – but not because public schools or public school teachers are bad. I owe much of my success at home (and in school) to public schools and public school teachers. I am a better human being for the experiences and relationships I had there. So, godspeed, public educators – and thank you.




The Adventure Continues

We had snow! A lot of snow! It was lovely and beautiful and, not for the first time, I realized how stunning this homestead really is. Scooter and Cheech had a blast – we built an awesome snowman, had a real snowball fight, tried sledding and even made snow angels. (Oh, the irony!)

Scooter and Cheech and our cowboy snowman.
Scooter and Cheech and our cowboy snowman.

It was amazing – and was another big step toward making peace with the upheaval of this move.

As I admired the beauty of our snow-covered pasture and the woods in the distance, woods I know are filled with deer, fox, coyotes, rabbits and a host of other amazing creatures, I couldn’t help but think of Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” And I was actually thankful that I didn’t have to leave those woods, my woods, so lovely, dark and deep –  not just because I’m terrified to drive on iced-over roads in Texas, but because I kind of like it here. A little tiny bit.

Which was a milestone. I’ve spent much of the past year bemoaning how hard it is living so far from Target and Starbucks. (Forty-five minutes, y’all!) I’ve cried a lot of tears about how hard it is to make friends in such a tight-knit, conservative community, and it’s been super hard to be away from our family and friends back in Waco.

But, I had to admit that in many ways, we’ve adjusted. We’ve gotten used to some things – like that forty-five minute drive. And I’ve actually grown closer to our far-away friends and family thanks to unlimited minutes, text and Facebook, too. (Go ahead and judge me. I don’t mind.)

Yes, the snow was awesome.

But, even in that moment, I knew we were facing another huge change.

No, I’m not pregnant. And no, we haven’t gotten any new animals. (We added chickens, a dog, fish and a crab last year so we are on a moratorium until something dies). No one is sick, the house hasn’t burned down and we aren’t moving again.

Nope, nothing major – we just decided to take our oldest son out of school and school him at home as of February 20.

Yes. We are now officially homeschoolers. (I will get to work on posts about sewing homespun clothes from flax I grow myself, our herd of goats and our adventure in forming the first-ever classical zither family band ASAP.)

All joking aside, it is a big, fat, hairy, scary deal. I am a certified public school teacher. I believe in public education. Yet here I am, joining the ranks of those who choose to bring their children home and do the job themselves. Suffice to say, it was a difficult and complex decision – one that is still too raw to discuss. I need time to process and reflect, to decide what’s worth sharing in a public forum and what is best kept to myself.

But, I absolutely will be using this space to share answers to other questions that aren’t so personal. And eventually (maybe) the answers as to why we’ve chosen this path. I’ll be posting what curriculum choices we’ve made, our schedule, how I manage both Scooter and Cheech, some of the materials and activities I create and design, and, I hope, sweet stories showing that homeschooling was the best choice. Fingers crossed, right?

From “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
"The woods are lovely, dark and deep..."
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep…”

Teaching and Parenting: The Same, but Different…

There have been many moments – too many to count, really – when I am confronted with the fact that I am grossly ill-prepared for parenthood.

Sure, I took child development and classroom management in preparation for becoming a teacher. Yeah, I managed rooms full of teenagers suffering from intermittent hormone-induced psychosis. But, nothing – and I mean NOTHING – really prepared me for this gig.

There is no principal, no bell, no textbook for parenting.

Now as any teacher worth her salt knows, the best teachers rarely send kids to the principal. But the principal is there. She’s a backup, a Plan G, a not-so-secret weapon. And even if the principal doesn’t actually do anything about the child’s problem behavior (be it throwing desks or shouting the f-bomb in class), when you send a kid to the principal’s office they are gone, even if it’s just for the remainder of the class period. And that little break is heavenly.

And, oh, the bell! Its clarion call heralds the end of your forty-seven minutes of heaven or hell. It is bliss, Nirvana, Paradise. It reminds you that no matter what madness you have endured, this too, shall pass.

And I’m not sure a textbook would have helped, but I’ve never had a lesson go so wrong, so fast as a conversation yesterday about the human skeleton. (Except for the time a girl stood up and began preaching in class because I was teaching a Hanukkah song.)

Scooter: “Mom, what’s that?” [Points to my handy visual aid.]

Me: “Oh, that’s the pelvis.”

Scooter: “Is that your butt?”

Me: “Well, it’s what your butt hangs on.”

Scooter: “Oh. [Points to lower part of spine.] And there’s the penis bone.”

Me: [Long pause.] “No, that’s not the penis bone. There isn’t a penis bone.”

Scooter: “Well, there is.” [He points to another visual aid.]

Me: [No pause.] “No, no there’s not. I know it sometimes feels like there’s a bone, but…”

Scooter: “Well, there is a bone in there.”

Me: “So, how about a snack?”

So when Scooter launches a hard plastic alligator into my gut, I can’t send him down the river. I am it. I am the prosecutor, judge, jury and bailiff. And I certainly don’t have a bell. Cheech wants to nurse for the forty-seventh time today? Moo. Scooter wants me to read “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” again, and this time, in a pirate voice? Argh. There’s poop on the bedroom curtains? Bleach. And there isn’t a book to help you explain why some animals have legs and some don’t, why Mommy isn’t going to go commando, and what to say when your kid asks you exactly how people die in fires.

No principal, no bell, no textbook. It’s a tough gig.

But, you know what? Some things are the same. The pay is still crummy.

What a Difference a Year Makes

As I schlepped through the grocery store parking lot today in my yoga pants, hefted Cheech’s carrier into the car seat base and zipped to Scooter’s school to make it in time for carpool pickup, I realized what a tremendous difference a year makes.

Rewind to April 12, 2012. I was a choir teacher in a public Texas high school and I was en route to take my Varsity Women’s Choir to UIL Concert and Sightreading Contest. For the uninitiated, this translates “Hell Week.”

Concert and Sightreading Contest is to choir what high-stakes standardized testing is to academics – in many districts, jobs are won and lost based on the outcome. Hopes will soar and dreams will be dashed. Directors and students alike eat, sleep and drink contest for months in advance, hoping to come home with the coveted “Sweepstakes” – i.e. top scores in both the concert portion and the sight reading portion.

But, like all things in education, an excellent rating on one year’s contest isn’t the result of one year’s work. Building the kind of program that performs well on that one snapshot day often takes years. And for a host of reasons that I won’t explain now, my students had only had 2-3 years of preparation instead of the 5-7 years expected of a group with the name “Varsity Women’s Choir.” Were they on track and even ahead for third-year choral students? Absolutely. But, in the world of U.I.L. Concert & Sightreading, they were David facing a Goliath-sized shopping list of expectations and requirements.

Add to that the sad fact that being in choir on our campus was a rather nerdy thing to do. In the high school social pecking order, we were not only lower than band nerds, we were lower than theater geeks. Really. Even the theater teacher agreed.

Also, we had been handed our hats at Contest the year before and the girls had been working ever since for a better rating. They had stretched themselves way beyond what they thought they could do – subjecting themselves to individual tests in sight reading and song literature, working on small groups together before and after school, extra rehearsals [within U.I.L. guidelines, of course], practicing at home.

I wasn’t sleeping. I was subsisting on crackers and diet soda. I recorded our rehearsals and nit-picked them at home. Scooter fell ill and I left him with the (“He’s No Florence Nightingale”) Hubs because I. Could. Not. Miss. Rehearsal!!! I consulted a bevy of seasoned vets for improvements, suggestions, good karma. And, oh, yes, I was three months pregnant and leaving at the end of the school year, and my precious students had had to be told because I was showing.

So, Contest wasn’t just about Contest. It was about making a good memory with a teacher they loved, about being rewarded for their efforts, about revenge, about being recognized and validated. And in no small part, it was about being seen as worthy of positive attention. Worthy of a larger investment of time and resources by their school and community.

The air on that bus was clouded with fear, love, determination and hope. And bus exhaust, of course.

Now, skip to the end. We won. For the first time in a really long time, they won a real award at a real contest. Not a Sweepstakes – but the highest possible rating in Concert. And, it was delicious and deserved. It was beautiful. Tears-in-your eyes, moment-of-hush-before-applause beautiful. I had traveled with a bunch of scared little girls, but I got to ride home with a band of proud, war-whooping warriors. They were full of vision. They had tasted victory. Next year is going to be awesome! Sweepstakes, here we come!

Except, it isn’t.

The program is all but dead. And next week is Contest – but, they aren’t going.

There are a lot of reasons. But, that’s not why I’m writing today. I’m not writing to finger-point or be snarky. I’ll save that for something less holy than the death of children’s dreams.

I’m writing today because those kids are and will always be worthy of my attention. Worthy of an investment of my time. And I think they are worthy of yours. I thank you for reading about them.