The Best Trick To Play On Your Children — So Sneaky!

My husband and I have this little trick we play on our children.

Every night, we try to get our three children in bed as close to 7:00 pm as possible. Our rule is that they need to stay in their rooms quietly and lights must be off. Oh, unless they feel like using this

Are you scratching your head over there? Continue reading The Best Trick To Play On Your Children — So Sneaky!

Never in a Million Years Did I Imagine Myself Homeschooling

There are some folks in this world who set out to homeschool. Homeschooling has always been a part of their life plan.

Then there are others who, for one reason or another, gradually make their way into the world of homeschooling.

And then there are the unexpected homeschoolers.

Folks, I never, in a million years, imagined myself hereContinue reading Never in a Million Years Did I Imagine Myself Homeschooling

Kalk: A Card Game That Makes Math Fun!

Image: Kalk (Used with permission)

I was cruising Kickstarter the other day, as one does, and I came across something unexpected among the plethora of games and comics that I usually love to back. It was a math game.

Now, math is on my mind a lot these days. Both my son and I learn math almost organically. Workbooks are like tedious torture to us, because we need to see the math in action. So I have been looking for ways that I can help him learn in a way that makes sense to us. We’ve had a lot of fun with Math Dice and other games like that.

Kalk might just be the next math game in our library.

After watching their Kickstarter video (which does an awesome job at explaining how the game works) and talking with designers Tommy and Jonathan a bit via email, I could tell these guys were both enthusiastic about their game and passionate about sharing a love of math with everyone, even those who have a hard time with it. I took the opportunity to ask them a few questions about their game, so hopefully others could share in their enthusiasm.

GeekMom Mel: What inspired you to make Kalk?

Jonathan: When I was young, my mom and I used to go on the street and she used to ask me to sum up car’s license plates, after a while it became easy and she challenged me to get to specific numbers by using + – x ÷, just like our goal number in Kalk.

GMM: Why math? Do you have a special relationship with the subject?

Tommy: Jonathan is more into math actually, but we both created this game in order to bring math to kids and parents in a cool and fun way, so everybody will like it, like we do!

GMM: What do you think makes Kalk different?

Tommy: Kalk is a very simple game. It takes less than 10 seconds to learn how to play. This was one of our challenges in creating something simple, yet challenging and inspiring. You can actually choose the difficulty by adding more cards, playing with our magic cards, or choosing your competitors.

GMM: What do you think is the funnest part about math, maybe something that even people who hate math can appreciate?

Jonathan: The funnest part in math, in our opinion, is the ability to solve things in different ways. It always amazes us how creative our minds can be! For example, we are posting several challenges during the week on our Facebook page, and it’s always fun to see people solving our riddles in different ways.

Image: Kalk (Used with permission)

GMM: Were you good at math growing up?

Tommy: Jonathan was really good! He’s like a little professor even though he doesn’t admit it. He used to help me in school, but it didn’t help that much. However, since Kalk was created, my math skills got better. Jonathan still wins ⅘ of the times! :)

GMM: Tell us a little about the process of designing your game. What was the funnest part? Which part was the hardest?

Jonathan: The design process of Kalk was very cool! Me and Tommy used to play Kalk long before we launched the project. Back then, I started to imagine how it will look. The hardest thing I did was to design the right numbers that will look clear, fun, and appealing to both kids and parents. The funnest part was to print the first pack of Kalk and playing it for the first time!

GMM: Do you have any advice for parents who might have kids who struggle with math?

Tommy: We would suggest to go really slow with it, for some kids (like me!) it doesn’t come naturally. Try to make math more like a fun riddle, or a challenge and less like just an assignment.

Image: Kalk (Used with permission)

GMM: Anything you’d like to add?

Tommy and Jonathan: We would like to add that we are really excited about this project and hope we will fund it within 20 days. It will be much appreciated if people could help us spread Kalk to the right people because unlike other “cool” projects on Kickstarter, those educational projects are a bit behind.

We really care about kids’ education these days, and believe that Kalk is a part of the solution with all the crazy technology games that you can find today. We miss sitting in the living room and play cards with friends.

We have created Kalk because we think it’s time to exercise our brain and reinforce our math skills (… and hopefully yours too!).

Best of luck with your Kickstarter campaign, Tommy and Jonathan. This looks like an awesome game, and I know I’ll be backing it!

For more details, or to back the Kickstarter, please check out Kalk‘s campaign!

Homeschooling the Geeks into the Future of Education

LOTR Chess, photo courtesy of S. Cook

Last week, Wired published an article addressing the increasing rate of homeschooling in the tech community. Among others, our family was featured as an example of the growing dissatisfaction with the public school system and the desire to cultivate an education that focused on individuality and child centered learning. This was not the first article, nor will it be the last, that seeks to understand why parents would forego the traditional education model for what is typically seen as the unknown.

The inherent issue is that all of these articles can hardly begin to touch the scope of why homeschooling is increasing, and not just in the tech or geek culture. But since I am a geek and our family is a part of the tech culture, that is the point of view I can speak from.

The common definition of a geek is: Someone who is or becomes extremely excited or enthusiastic about a subject, typically one of specialist or minority interest. I happen to be enthusiastic about many things, but especially about education. The reality is that removing one’s family from the public education system is not the unknown. It is not new. It is how children have learned through most of human history. Systemized public education is the experiment. The diversity of why families homeschool, the economics of how they make it work, and how that manifests in each home is so profound in it’s individuality, it is often very hard to understand outside the experience.

Case in point:

The morning the reporter spent with us was a Thursday. Beyond the description he gave, our morning actually started much earlier. After breakfast, my boys went outside to measure our yard because we are historically renovating a house and they feel a medieval knot garden is appropriate to the architecture. We also had a discussion on why goat glue is used to fix plaster.

Then, they came in and began mapping out the next 6 weeks of what they wanted to study. It is essential to me that my children remain the captains of their educational ships, and as such they play a central role in deciding what that looks like. I serve as a guide, a mentor, an expert when they need one (or find them someone who is), constant and reliable, adding new things and old into their path to help expand their worldview. My boys happen to like structure and routine, and created their schedule for 4 days a week of study. They love math and history, which are always included, and one of them will continue Japanese language and culture while the other chose to move on from Mod Design to App Development.

They had also decided to continue studying entrepreneurship by building their own businesses and wanted my help getting started after finishing their goals for math that day and watching CNN student news. One of my boys decided on a restaurant, the other on genetically modified creatures. The first eventually came up with a budget and created a set menu, which later he invited several families to attend an opening. The other started researching private and public funds that would support his research, as well as other organizations he could partner with in order to conserve resources.

We also covered history that day. We have just reached the Age of Enlightenment and I suggested it would be fun to try to create a modern marketing or social media scheme for some of the big ideas coming out of this time period. They both loved the idea, disappeared for a while, and came back. One had used Gimp to hack a Gravity (movie) poster, replacing the floating astronaut with Sir Isaac Newton, adding floating apples, and changing the text at the bottom to include information essential to the understanding of gravity. The other kid used iMovie to create a call-to-action film called “Free Galileo,” describing Galileo’s findings, his imprisonment by the church, and the need to protest against the injustice. I decided to create a few Gosling “Hey Girl” memes.

After we all stopped laughing, the boys went upstairs to participate in an online Skype gaming tournament with their friends and I went to pick up their sister. (My youngest wanted to try school this year, and attends an amazing constructivist school, for as long as she wants to go.) When I got home, I worked for a couple hours and then got ready to take the boys to Judo, where they are on a tournament team. During Judo, my daughter and I worked on a collaborative drawing. At night, we watched an episode of Firefly and then read until we all eventually went to bed.

I also solicited descriptions from other homeschooling GeekMoms (some of us do, some of us don’t) about their day:

On that same Thursday, GeekMom Jenny’s family got up to be ready to work on schoolwork by 9am at the latest. They focus on math first thing, because it takes a fresh mind. Next she had each of her two kids working on their other subjects, some independently, some with her as a guide, some with her as teacher. Things like writing, health (for her daughter), logic, history, Spanish, and art often end up on Thursdays. Mid afternoon, she took her son to his social skills class at a local middle school (even though he’s in 5th). Soon thereafter, she took her son to one of his book clubs at the library, rushed over to the YMCA for her daughter’s gymnastics class, rushed back to pick up her son, and then back to pick up her daughter. Family time in the evening included dinner together, games, family discussion time, and other things, including work.

At GeekMom Rebecca’s house, that Thursday was spent with her sixteen year old son, since her daughter is now 19 and in college. She drove her son to a homeschooling group where he takes Spanish, and Art in the morning. While he was there she gave music lessons to a family nearby. Then she picked him up and went home to watch a Star Trek: Voyager episode over lunch. After that they did a chapter in his physics book together. (She gave him an assignment to write up the difference between a regular oven and a convection oven, and he started it off with a comic about the convection oven being powered by the energy of “fan girls” screaming.)

For the rest of the afternoon she had music students, so he did random stuff on his own: math, philosophy, literature, exercise, his eBay pewter business. He has a written schedule that they work out together and tweak every month. Then, she took him to Aikido; his dad picked him up after work and they all ate dinner together. In the evening, he played video games with friends online, then his dad and he went over some of his math. Finally, he read the latest Harry Dresden novel until bedtime. Rebecca notes that Thursday is probably their busiest day. If I had asked her about Wednesday it would have been: went to a museum, went out for lunch discussing the museum exhibits, came home and did maybe an hour of work, played video games, in the evening he went to play Magic at a local gaming store. Every day is different!

That same Thursday for GeekMom Cristen started at 8:00 am. The kids played and had breakfast. Formal lessons on this day were light, because they had a friend arriving for the day at 10:30 am. So, her eight year old son did two Word Ladders, worked on his story about two dragons fighting over the same castle, then did some math with Beast Academy. Her kindergartner read a BOB Book out loud, and did some sculpting with clay while she helped her son.

Once their friend arrived, the kids played while Cristen packed some water and snacks. They then headed to the local roller rink for a mid morning session. In the car they listened to Joy Hakim’s The History of US. After skating the kids were  hungry, so they went and had a quick lunch. When they got home, a friend and her four-year-old daughter stopped by. Her two older girls were at co-op classes up the road, and the little one wanted to play. Eventually, her friend went to pick up her older two girls, while her youngest stayed and played. When she came back, all the kids played for a few hours. Folks left there at about 5pm, then Cristen put a movie on for the kids and made dinner. She notes that her typical Thursday isn’t quite as active, but this is truly how it all went down.

Finally, for GeekMom Melanie, the day started around 7am. Her son is 12, and for the past year or so he’s been getting started without her. He doesn’t think of what he is doing as school, though. He gets up, goes downstairs, and gets a cup of dry cereal. Then he reads while he eats it. That day, it was a book about dinosaurs, since that is one of his latest passions. He also has the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual next to him, and seems to be referring to it once in a while. At around 8am, he went upstairs to get his computer. He writes programs in both Scratch and Python, usually for making some sort of games, but lately he’s been approaching things more methodically. He has Help Your Kid With Computer Programming and a DK workbook about coding next to him.

After some breakfast and morning routine, it was time to do math. Her son wanted to go back and review some of the basics, so they have been working on various topics. She figured she would let him do easy stuff until he got bored and wanted a new challenge, and that Thursday seemed to be the day. He tells her that doing the problems is hard. When she suggested perhaps it was more that he was bored and found the work tedious, he agreed. The next day they will work on something a bit more advanced.

After math, they talk a bit about explorers, and read part of a book together about Christopher Columbus. After lunch, Melanie’s son announces it’s time for him to “work.” This is part of his daily routine. This particular day, work consists of working on a Snap Circuits project. He’s making something with a siren and flashing lights. Every now and then he’ll need help, so he will ask her a question, and she leads him on the path to the answer. She thinks he got a little frustrated with it though, because he asked if he can leave it set up on the table. Then he went back to his dinosaur book. He started asking a lot of questions about what Cretaceous Earth looked like, so they spent some time researching. She finds out he is writing a story about kobalds and dinosaurs, and he was trying to make his setting geologically sound.

He got hungry around 3pm, and had a snack while he read from Hiro’s Journal, a book about the character from Big Hero 6. He’s been very inspired by that movie and that character lately, and says he wants to go to Nerd School. They discussed what this means, and how he can get there for a while. Then… it was dinner time and time to wind down for bed! Before bed they always read aloud from a novel. They were towards the end of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Lights were out around 8pm.

Squishy Circuits, photo courtesy of Curiosity Hacked

As you can see, just taking one day out of one year for a homeschooling family shows the uniqueness of the experience. Families tend to do what works best for their families, ebbing and flowing through passions, some more structured and some more fluid. Common misconceptions aside, there is no disconnect from the real world and community.

“Most revolutions begin in the margins. We can see this in many famous people for whom school never worked. Everybody from Einstein to George Lucas to Jack Horner, the paleontologist, are people for whom school was too narrow. They were marginalized. Students in the margins, as in any revolution, are pointing at the way towards the future.”
~David Rose, Founder and Chief Education Officer, Harvard School of Education

Something I have found as an educator outside the public system, whether I am in a museum or a non-profit or a hackerspace, is that people dedicated to public education often react to alternatives like homeschooling by becoming defensive. This is unnecessary and impedes progress. Alternative education is not symbolic nor is it competitive, it is participating in a movement that has to start somewhere, often in the margins. There is a palpable desire to integrate how we see children learning best into the public system. We can, in fact, change public education to be learner centered, creative, and innovative. But none of us is under an ethical or civic obligation to participate in a system we believe to be broken and all of us have the right to revolutionize education from a place free of standardization and test scores. It is without these restraints that we will be able to see how to rebuild public education.

Homeschooling is one choice, out of many, that is trying to use the knowledge we have had for decades to create learning environments that are based on child development, autonomy, and relationships. From the homeschooling movement, co-ops, clubs and programs have blossomed. Even my own work creating hackerspaces and programs for kids and their families has been heavily influenced by our experience as a homeschooling family—every child I work with is treated and respected as unique and every program we run holds the same vision. I work with public and private schools to integrate these ideas wherever we can, whether as an elective or a special event. Even if their time with me is the only time during the week that a kid isn’t told what to do, but in fact controls their own learning, it was worth it. I see parents every weekend who want to support their kids in this way and I try to help them figure out how. I am sure many educators feel they are trying to treat every child as individuals, but the reality of the system tells a story of limitation and frustration regardless of how hard teachers are working or how creative they get within the confines and expectations of performance. Some are more successful, many are not. It’s no wonder the alternative education movement is growing. I can see the shift happening.

Some believe that the tech community, especially here in Silicon Valley, should be able to produce a better public education system. Shouldn’t an industry that can make my phone learn how to identify all the gluten free restaurants near me without me even asking or a computer program that intuitively adjusts to my preferences be able to guide us to the future of individualized education? Perhaps, but only if they are willing to let go of concepts like scalability. Homeschooling was never meant to be scalable, please stop writing about how it’s not. What it does show us is a range of outcomes from average to outstanding, and rejecting this wealth of information is counter-productive. It is revealing evidence that the latest classroom trends are just that- trends- because they do not sustainably support how children learn. Perhaps then, with the values of innovation inspiring us, it is the education community (particularly alternative education), the people who study and work with children, and not the tech community should be the ones we look to, the ones we support and give credit to. Scalability is for network systems, not kids.

What we really are asking for is a reproducible and flexible public system that can be modified to meet the needs of its community while sharing values, information, and resources. The world is absolutely changing and, especially in the tech industry, work is becoming more creative, mindful, resourceful, self-directed, open source, and collaborative. Curious, passionate, life-long learners are made through these same values. If we invest in this, we will see the results we are looking for. Every child has a right to and deserves to learn in this way, but until we change our mindset about assessment and replace the old system, we will continue to see what is missing from our children’s education.

Plein Air Painting at the beach, photo courtesy of S. Cook

We Can Do It! Lessons From My Son

Some people think homeschoolers teach their kids at home, short and simple. Well, that’s not entirely true. Sure, I might teach my son, the Chief, how to do math, or how to find out more information about his favorite planet, or we might read stories together. But truly, the learning goes both ways. Take this, for example:

Spyro 2: Ripto's Rage!
Image: Insomniac Games and SCEA

A few years ago, the Chief discovered video games. The only thing we had at the time was the original PlayStation game and a few disks, including his favorite, Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage. I usually sat on the couch and was watched him play while I did other things. Every two seconds, I would cringe and say things like, “Be careful! No, don’t do that, you’re going to die!” And, “You’d better get more butterflies so you can earn more lives.” At one point, there was this big boss, and he was shooting fireballs, and the little dragon couldn’t move fast enough… and… and… and… D’OH, sure enough, Spyro bit it. Not only that, but it was his last life, and the screen filled with the message “GAME OVER.” This was back when dying was a little more complicated than it is now, and you could lose a day’s worth of gaming progress.

I have to admit, I was hesitant to look over at my son. I felt kind of crushed on his behalf. Then I heard him LAUGH! He just pushed a button and started the game all over again, continuing on as happily as ever. All I could think of were all those times I had played that same game, and all the times I died and became so frustrated and stressed out that I…well, might have said some things that weren’t acceptable in mixed company. And yes, I knew how silly it was to get so frustrated over a game, something that didn’t really exist, but there it was. I admired my son for his good attitude, and for keeping the good spirit of the game.

Fast forward to the other morning. I’ve been working on a scene in my current novel, and it just would not work out. In fact, something was extremely broken about my whole idea, which seemed to be working so well up to that point. I pulled my hair out and cursed at my computer, finally announcing that the thing was impossible.

Then, I remembered. The Chief, who has the attention span of an ant and who should be the one to get frustrated by things, just accepts when things don’t go right the first time, like when he had to start over again at his game. He simply saw it as the nature of the beast. He wasn’t good at something, he didn’t get it right, so he just kept on trying until he did get it right. He can be so zen about it all. I suddenly felt kind of foolish. Why was I getting so frustrated? Furthermore, what sort of example was I setting for the Chief? That you just quit when something gets too hard? No way.

So thanks, Chief, for that lesson.

Image: J. Howard Miller, public domain

How Ecological! A Review of EcoFluxx

Photo: Melanie R. Meadors

Designed by Alison and Andrew Looney, EcoFluxx is one of the many games in Looney Labs’ line of Fluxx card games. Santa gave it to my son for Christmas, since he is such a huge fan of Cthulhu Fluxx and also because he’s a big lover of cute natural things.

But I wondered: Was it worth buying yet another Fluxx game? We already had three of them.

The blurb on the Looney Labs website is as follows:

In the wild, you must adapt to survive! Will you win by having your Bears Eat Fish? Or will someone change the Goal so that their Frogs and Insects can make Night Music? Play ecology themed Actions and Rules like Scavenger or Composting, but watch out for Creeper cards like Forest Fire, that can hurt everyone! Discover a little about how things go together, with EcoFluxx—the nature game of ever-changing rules!

Photo: Melanie R. Meadors

The packaging of the game is kid-friendly and appealing, at least to my kid. The same goes for the artwork on the cards, done by Derek Ring. Even I enjoyed looking through the cards at the various critters. Shockingly enough, the game is educational. Throughout play, my son was asking questions. “What’s this?” He was reminded about photosynthesis, recycling, and how composting works. There are predators and decomposition. And of course, all the fun gameplay that always comes with Fluxx.

To get an idea of how to play the game, the Looney Labs website has a copy of the rules. Gameplay can last anywhere from 2 minutes (I’m not kidding) to an hour, averaging about 15 minutes or so.

We’ve played with two and three people, but you can play with up to six. It’s the perfect game to play after dinner for a nice family activity, or even to take on a trip to play in the hotel.

The rules are super easy to learn, and it’s not a complex game. There is strategy involved, though, so don’t let the simple concept of the game fool you. The instructions say ages 8+ will enjoy, but I think that with some reading help, most 6-year-olds could enjoy it.

I would note that this is a nice addition to any homeschooler’s game library. There are so many opportunities for discussion about how life and the environment work together. It makes teaching the subject almost effortless. There is even a learning guide online for those who are interested.

All in all, I have nothing negative to say. EcoFluxx is a fun game for the whole family!

Photo: Melanie R. Meadors

Go Math! Academy: Learning Through Positive Reinforcement

Image via Houghton Mifflin

Tracking Pixel
What’s the best way to teach mathematics to children?

That’s a question that has plagued for several years, as my youngest daughter struggles to work up to grade level. She’s very bright but has serious issues with patience and impulse control. Learning a new math skill is a precarious situation for her and her teachers.

She’s used several educational apps that can help her along in the past. But now there’s Go Math! Academy from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the sponsor of this post. This is an  online, at-home learning program for grades K-6 based on Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s successful GO Math! textbook curriculum, used by over 7 million kids worldwide. The online program offers thousands of math practice problems, hundreds of help videos, plus positive feedback in the midst of problem solving. And then there are the games, which even I found fun.

What I liked most about Go Math! Academy was the positive reinforcement provided at each step. My daughter can be very tentative and worried about providing the wrong answer, but she could check her work while in the midst of a problem. At that point, she’d receive either a voice praising her correct answer or be given a chance to try again. More positive reinforcement is provided from medals received as each skill is fully mastered.

Each math skill is broken into “journeys” that utilize several different backgrounds, from rocketships to under the sea. At the beginning levels, the journeys are short. For example, there were just four questions per skill in first grade but ten at the fifth grade level.

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I could track both my kids’ progress on a dashboard that is password protected, making it easy for me to review what skill my daughter was on at any time. Once a skill is mastered, children can move around a bit and try the higher levels of that particular skill.

When my daughter was stuck on a problem, she was given help via step-by-step breakdowns of the problem using the Common Core methods or from video tutorials featuring expert instructors and cute puppets (though the latter is better for younger kids as my daughter rolled her eyes at the puppets). Knowing she could stop, back up, and try again definitely lowered the stress levels and allowed my daughter to work somewhat independently.

However, I’d also recommend keeping old fashioned pen and paper handy as some children, like mine, like to double-check their screen work on a notepad. I admit, I also needed the notebook sometimes since the way children are taught math is somewhat different from the way I learned math over forty years ago.

The games unlocked as rewards are another incentive, as they teach math but they’re fun as well. Even I had fun playing the matching balloon game at the first grade level. (I was testing out several levels—my daughter is at a higher level.) There’s also a print-out math trick at the first grade level that fascinated me.

For those wanting to try, Go Math! Academy is free for the first 14 days and is available in three payment plans which includes access for up to 5 children:
· Monthly: $9.99/month
· 6 months: $49.99 ($8.33/month) – a 17% savings
· 1 year: $79.99 ($6.67/month) – a 33% savings

There is a short tutorial video on the Go Math! Academy site that is worth watching to get a sense of what’s available at the site.

You can also follow @HMHAcademy on Twitter, like Go Math! Academy on Facebook, and follow Go Math! Academy on Pinterest.

Disclaimer: This post was sponsored by Go Math! Academy.

Edward Snowden: Brilliant “Dropout”

Screen grab: Kris Bordessa

The source of the recent leaks from the National Security Agency, Edward Snowden, sure has people talking. Should he have leaked the information? Or should he have kept quiet? What was his motive? And those documents!

Rest assured, GeekMoms, I’m not going to delve into the politics of the NSA leak, or the Patriot Act, or Snowden’s travel to Hong Kong. I’m not here to judge whether he’s a hero or not or if the NSA and its contractors should have hired him in the first place. But let’s talk about his education.

The Atlantic wrote that Snowden was a high school dropout, later correcting the story to reflect that in actuality he received a General Equivalency Diploma.

* Update: The first version of The Guardian piece described Snowden as a high-school dropout, which raised a lot of eyebrows as the U.S. Army does not take people without either a high-school diploma or a General Equivalency Diploma, with very rare exceptions. The paper later clarified that he holds a GED.

The Daily Mail wonders:

How did a high school dropout become entrusted with the government’s biggest secrets?

I think a more important question is: Why are we still so hung up on that little piece of paper?

In many of the articles about Snowden, his lack of a high school diploma is front and center. Mother Jones reports that now even Snowden’s community college courses are in question. The fact that he may have lied about this is one thing; but why the focus on whether or not he finished a degree or took cyber-related courses? Clearly he has the skills. Does it matter if he acquired them independent of the school system?

In this day and age, kids with the desire to learn have access to more information than they can possibly process. With free online college courses, e-libraries, and access to peer reviewed studies (to name just a few of the options), a student with a little initiative can easily outpace the typical high school curriculum. A kid with a specialized interest—in programming, say—might find himself in high demand for his skills with or without a diploma.

The roster of successful high school dropouts is a long one, including names like Walt Disney, anchorman Peter Jennings, Frank Lloyd Wright, world chess champion Bobby Fischer, and Albert Einstein. High school dropout isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you see these names, is it?

School attendance is compulsory in America, but it isn’t for everybody. Some students may simply drop out to pursue their interests on their own terms while others seek alternatives like charter schools or homeschooling. In fact, Education News reported in May of 2012 that:

Since 1999, the number of children who are being homeschooled has increased by 75%.

If you’ve been reading GeekMom for long, you might recall that my own kids were homeschooled. One—like Snowden—holds a GED; the other is set to get his next month. Are they high school dropouts? Are they failures because they didn’t cross that high school stage in cap and gown? Or are they young men who had the opportunity to pursue their passions fully and with abandon? Are they young men with the potential to rock the world in their chosen fields?

We want young people who are supercharged about their education. Kids and young adults who are excited about learning and who can learn using all of the non-traditional methods that are available to us now. To focus on whether or not Snowden has a diploma, to make that the story, is archaic. So what if he doesn’t have a diploma? Snowden is clearly brilliant. I suspect it was his extensive, competent knowledge of surveillance, sophisticated technology, and programming rather than any school pedigree that netted him his job. Whether or not you agree with his politics, you have to admit that he is highly skilled in his field in spite of (or perhaps because of) his unconventional education.

People are curious about this guy, sure. And we’ll certainly find out more about Snowden and his motives as the days pass. But what high school Snowden attended, which courses he took, and whether or not he passed is irrelevant. His transcript from a decade ago has exactly nothing to do with the moral values that seem to have driven him to come forward.

Call him a patriot. Call him a whistle blower. Call him a traitor. But let’s leave his diploma out of it.

Introducing GeekMom Book Dish! Episode One: Quinn Cummings

GeekMom Book Dish
One of the nicest things about being a children’s book writer is that you cross paths with all sorts of other writers and illustrators. There’s little I enjoy more than talking shop with other creative people. With GeekMom Book Dish, we’re rolling out a new feature in which I’ll indulge my love of hanging out with authors and artists, talking about books, family, and anything else that strikes our fancy.

In this first installment, the fabulous Quinn Cummingsauthor, blogger, homeschooling mom, former child actress—chats with me about her brand-new book, Pet Sounds, her geeky passions, and other topics. There’s even a lightning round at the end with questions generated by my children. Hope you enjoy! And if you have questions for Quinn, you can fire away in the comments or catch her at @quinncy on Twitter.

(Cool news about Pet Sounds: one dollar for every copy sold will go to Sante D’Or, an animal shelter on the east side of Los Angeles.)

Note from Natania: “Video is no new thing on the web. But we wanted to carve out our own niche. The GeekMom Game of Thrones Recap Tea Party has taken off like gangbusters, and while that’s got a fantastic audience of brilliant commentors and super engaged watchers and readers, we thought something faster and broader might have a great reach. We’re so excited to introduce Book Dish!”

This Week With the GeekMoms

GeekMom News

Dakster Sullivan is still without her car this weekend, so instead she will be dreaming up another adventure. This weekend, she plans to head over to LA to watch a taping of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. She hopes to meet the cast when they’re done and take a tour of the Nickelodeon Studios. Afterwards, she will strap on her roller-blades and roll out and around the city. For lunch she plans on hitting up Clifton’s Cafeteria because Google said it was good.

This week Sarah was reintroduced to the world of hiking in Maine after a very long winter. A partially frozen swamp of a hike, two tired boys and we are well on our way to Spring. She is eagerly planning the dress she will be making for PortCon and just has to decide whether it should be Star Trek or Star Wars fabric. Place your bets now with hashtag #mainemummy. This weekend there will be much rejoicing at a sudden but wonderful wedding between two friends, there will also hopefully be a late night showing of Jurassic Park after the reception!

Ariane is back from a last minute trip to her hometown, Montreal, Canada. She went for a funeral, but apparently grieving and eating too much junk food are not mutually exclusive. Poutines, chocolates, Coffee Crisps, May Wests, and ketchup chips were had plentifully. Her preschooler’s reaction to seeing snow for the first time was not as exciting as everyone expected, she simply exclaimed “I’m cold. I want to go home. Carry me.” Both were happy to return to the warmer climates of California. Weaklings.

Kelly Knox may have taken her love of America’s Best Dance Crew a little too far by signing up her four-year-old for a break-dancing class. The class is aimed at getting toddlers and preschoolers exercising by exploring movement, and to Kelly’s delight is taught by Dance Crew alum Massive Monkees. Kelly plans to geek out while her kiddo works out.

This week Patricia over-committed herself once again. This weekend she has three big events she somehow has to juggle: the base spouses’ club auction (about which she has to thank Dakster for her help getting some autographed swag from Megacon), running a Cub Scout campout on the battleship USS Alabama in Mobile, all while having a yard sale. What the heck was she thinking????

Melissa Wiley has launched a monthly email newsletter for parents, teachers, librarians, and homeschoolers. She’ll be sharing children’s book recommendations, app reviews, fun learning resources, and more. Here’s a peek at the April edition. You can sign up at this link.

Jules Sherred’s week has been a blur of frenzied activity. As a result, Jules is extra-happy to be able to call this week done, and sit down to have a conversation with John Kovalic of GeekDad/Dork Tower/Munchkin fame at 7 pm PT/ 10 pm ET on the Geeky Pleasures Radio Show at The Look 24/7.

Kris Bordessa is putting one more parenting milestone behind her. No more of those teeny, tiny rubber bands under the couch, in the laundry, or on the floor. Her youngest son’s braces are off!

Review: Python for Kids

Python for Kids - No Starch Press
Image courtesy No Starch Press

Python for Kids is a book from No Starch Press that aims to teach kids ages 10 and up and their parents about the Python programming language. Python is a good candidate for kids and other programming newbies because it mostly uses natural language and avoids the more annoying things you can find in some programming language. There’s no need to end every line with a semicolon. Variables don’t need to be declared, nor do they need to stick with the same data type. And if I stopped speaking English about two sentences ago, there’s good news. Python for Kids can still help you learn.

I happen to have an 11 year old daughter for convenient review purposes, so we’ve been working through the book together. I’m bribing her with a Raspberry Pi and pink flexible keyboard, because the Raspberry Pi can be programmed with Python. Might as well use what you learn.

First off, the tone of this book is just about right. We tried Super Scratch Programming Adventure, and while the Scratch book is aimed at a slightly younger audience, it really feels like it’s aimed at a much younger audience. Nobody likes a book that talks down to them. Python for Kids author Jason Briggs manages to successfully describe programming to kids without sounding like he’s dumbing down the content. My one critique as an adult reading this is that the whole book had enlarged print, but if it actually helps struggling learners read, I suppose I can overlook it.

My daughter was able to work through most chapters on her own, but she did sometimes ask for help with global concepts, such as why you’d want to “recycle code” or what an if statement was meant to do. Once she understood the concept she was going to learn in the chapter, she was able to go through the exercises and excitedly brag about what she’d learned. “Mom,  I made a tuple! Mom, there’s a turtle in Python!”

She’s still only halfway through the book, but I’ve read ahead. By the time you finish Python for Kids, you’ll have completed two games and learned the foundations for programming with Python. The lessons are well-constructed and leave the reader with a feeling of accomplishment in each chapter.

If you’re looking for a book to teach your fifth grade or older child how to program, and you’re willing to provide a little guidance here and there, this book (and maybe a Raspberry Pi with pink flexible keyboard) makes a good investment.


How To Learn From Experts


learn from experts, hands-on learning, workshop learning, gain expertise,
Hot sticky experts..( via

Successful societies have always respected what the the wise can teach us. But it’s not easy to learn directly from people whose grasp of any subject well exceeds our own, in part because person-to-person learning is easily supplanted by online engagement.

I spend plenty of time staring at screens, yet I know from years of facilitating non-violence workshops that something important happens as we discuss, practice, and hone our skills together. Real learning is like a spark transferred. Going online is practically a reflex for us, but if our learning is confined there what’s lost is rich perspective and valuable hands-on experience.

If you know where to look you can find sculptors, farmers, astronomers, welders, storytellers, clock repair experts, and cartoonists right in your community. Let’s take my hometown of Cleveland as an example. I can learn glass blowing at the Glass Bubble Project, eviscerate and stuff a rat to look like a tiny tie-wearing butler during a taxidermy workshop at Sweet Not Salty, apply Brian Swimme’s cosmology to my life direction at River’s Edge, make pasta by hand at Loretta Paganini School of Cooking, march with the Red Hackle Pipes & Drums band as I learn to play bagpipes from a former Pipe Major of Scotland’s Black Watch, drop my kids off where they can partner with working scientists at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s future scientist program, volunteer to rehabilitate injured birds at the Medina Raptor Center, and learn to make handmade books at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Museums, libraries, colleges and universities, cultural and ethnic organizations, recreational centers, and plenty of other places in your neighborhood are brimming with great workshops and classes too.

This can happen more informally as well. Continue reading How To Learn From Experts

Khan Academy Adds Computer Science Courses

Exciting news for kids, parents, and autodidacts everywhere! Khan Academy, the innovative online platform that brings free education to the masses, has added computer science to their already stellar lineup of subjects. John Resig, Khan Academy’s Dean of Computer Science, describes the new offerings on his blog:

We’re releasing a completely new platform that targets people with no programming knowledge and gives them an engaging and fun environment to learn in.

Over everything else we wanted to emphasize creativity and exploration and make it approachable for people of all ages, including young kids.

The video above gives a good overview of the new offerings, which include drawing on the computer, intro to programming, and animation. As I write this, I’m sitting next to my eleven-year-old daughter, who has just finished the Intro to Drawing course and is gleefully experimenting with changing values to move her shapes around the screen. As the video course got underway, she actually gasped in delight when the instructor used a Pokemon metaphor to explain what a function is.

Khan Academy Intro to Drawing screenshot
Screenshot from Khan Academy’s Intro to Drawing course

I’m a big fan of Khan Academy’s mission and method, and my teenagers make heavy use of their science, math, and history videos. Our homeschooling plans for the upcoming year involve a great deal of Khan biology and art history. My seventeen-year-old is already signed up to take Game Design and 3D Art at Giant Campus Academy (an interactive online school we’ve had a great experience with — its courses, however, are far from free), but I can say with certainty that my fourteen- and eleven-year-olds will be making ample use of Khan’s new comp sci lineup. In fact, the eleven-year-old has just this minute moved on to Intro to Coloring. Thanks for making learning so much fun, Khan Academy!

No Long-Term Benefit Of ADHD Meds?

ritalin does no good, ADHD not helped by drugs, no benefit to attention-deficit drugs, what really helped ADHD,
Wikimedia CC 2.5

Want to cause a ruckus? Criticize attention-deficit meds.

Over three million U.S. kids take these drugs to help them stay calm and attentive. Parents may not be thrilled to dose their children but they are following expert advice to improve behavior and school performance.  They tend to see results. And they don’t need to be judged.

But it helps to pay attention to what works for parents who don’t put or keep their kids on meds. My son was diagnosed with ADD when he was in first grade.  There was a great deal of pressure from his teacher to put him on medication. As many parents do, I struggled to find ways to alleviate the problem without drugs. We found significant improvement when we changed his diet but that wasn’t enough to make the school setting truly work for him. The way he learned best and the way he flourished simply didn’t fit in the strictures of the school environment. He wasn’t wired to sit still and pay attention for hours. Once we began homeschooling we discovered that without classroom and homework pressure, what appeared to be ADD symptoms largely disappeared.

The newest studies of attention-deficit disorder medications now indicate that the calming effect of these drugs don’t necessarily indicate that those who take them have any sort of “brain deficit.”  As L. Alan Sroufe, professor emeritus of psychology at the Universityof Minnesota’s Instituteof Child Development explains,  such medications have a similar effect on all children as well as adults. “They enhance the ability to concentrate, especially on tasks that are not inherently interesting or when one is fatigued or bored, but they don’t improve broader learning abilities.”

Research shows the effect wanes in a few years without conferring any lasting benefit. Dr. Sroufe writes,

To date, no study has found any long-term benefit of attention-deficit medication on academic performance, peer relationships or behavior problems, the very things we would most want to improve.

This isn’t to say that drugs such as Ritalin are useless. It’s important to remember that studies cited by Dr. Sroufe are limited to children with ADHD, not concomitant diagnoses such as oppositional defiant disorder, bipolar disorder, or autism. Even when facing ADHD itself, parents need support that extends beyond what the mental health system, insurance company, or school district willingly offers. Some states provide advocates who help parents stand up for the child’s right to appropriate education, including extra time to complete assignments, smaller class sizes, and the kind of counseling that helps ADHD children internalize behavioral standards and respond appropriately to social cues. Parents also turn online for support. The blogosphere is full of information and empathy from others raising ADHD children, including the following:

Easy to Love, Hard to Raise

ADDitude Magazine ADHD parenting blog and education blog

ADHD Awareness

Edge Foundation

A Mom’s & Dad’s View of ADHD

Life with ADHD

While Dr. Sroute looks for a mental health answer, I think it’s a much bigger issue. It asks us to look at how today’s children are restricted in movement, have less time for free play, and are exposed to unnecessarily early academics.  It asks us to look at the quality of the air, water, and food in the lives of today’s children. It asks us to support all families as they are, recognizing that one-size-fits-all guidelines don’t embrace diverse ways of being. To me, particular hope lies in research showing that free time spent playing in natural settings significantly improved the behavior and focus of ADHD children. The more natural and wilderness-like the area, the greater the improvement.

Are our wonderfully distractible, messy, impulsive children trying to tell us something?


Book Review: Legendary Learning


What drives big thinkers, creators, and leaders who achieve success on their own terms? Jamie McMillin wanted to find out, hoping her quest would help her raise and educate her own two children.

She delved into biographies of luminaries including Margaret Mead, Pearl Buck, Marie Curie, Louis Armstrong, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Beatrix Potter looking for educational similarities. She found plenty. She also discovered common threads in their upbringing and experiences. These and many other great people may not have been geniuses, but they had the drive to pursue their particular passions with determination and optimism. Although different in many ways, they tended to seek out mentors, find inspiration in nature, creatively overcome adversity, and seek self-education.

McMillin has written Legendary Learning so you too can raise and educate your children using excellence as a guide. Although hers is a family of homeschoolers, this book is an extraordinary resource for all parents and teachers. In it you’ll find out how to foster a child’s passion and determination, enable your child to unleash his or her creative genius, and live the habits of success.

In the book and on the author’s site you’ll find stories of Frederick Douglass teaching himself to write in the shipyards using a piece of chalk, Alexander Graham Bell listening to wheat grow, and Mary Leakey in a convent classroom frothing at the mouth thanks to illicit use of soap. Learning from history has never been approached quite this way, through the childhoods of history’s fascinating people.

Read this one with a highlighter. You won’t be sorry.


A copy of the book was provided for this review. 

Muse of Nerds: Joy Hakim, Storyteller Extraordinaire

I received lots of kudos for getting to interview Joy Hakim. Maybe this is because most of my friends are geeks of some sort, most homeschool their kids, and we all have read Joy’s books, amazed at how she draws us into learning so easily with her gift of storytelling. I hope you enjoy this interview:

You have written A History of US, and The Story of Science, as a way of teaching through stories; characters and their world lead the reader on a journey of learning with a focus on American history, or Physics. What was the inspiration behind these projects?
Well, there was the day a son brought home a new middle school history. I knew that textbooks are rarely page-turners (although they should be), but this book was beyond dull. The writing was barely literate, the page layouts dreary. I was so enraged by it that I actually called his history teacher.

“I hate the book too,” he told me. I shook my head. How could a book so obviously flawed make it into schools? (I would find out.) Anyway, being a journalist, and caring about words and ideas, I decided to see what I could do.

As for storytelling, that’s the classic way civilizations have always passed on their ideas and information. That we have turned away from it in teaching our children has been a tragedy.

How long did it take to write each series? What kept you going through the writing process?
I’m not sure, because I always seem to be doing several things at once. About seven years for each is a guess. I worked on a PBS special, called Freedom: A History of US, while writing the science books. And I did other things too.

What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on two books on evolutionary biology. I hope your readers will give that subject a chance. Earth and the life upon it change. There are no dinosaurs walking about. I’m fascinated with the subject. In one of the books I begin with a letter Galileo wrote to an Italian prince telling him of the wonders he has seen through his occhialino (microscope) where “one can contemplate infinitely the grandeur of nature, and how subtly she works. . . “

Within my homeschooling community, you are a superstar. Pretty much every family I know has used one or both of these series. When you first started writing, what were your hopes for the project?
Like most writers, I just hoped to get published. Actually, given the quality of history texts, and the widespread call for better school books, I assumed that if I wrote well the publishing world would fall at my feet. I was naive. Every publisher I sent the manuscript to rejected it. One actually said, “It doesn’t sound textbooky.” How A History of US finally got published is a long story. It wouldn’t have happened without my friend/agent Byron Hollinshead, a former president of Oxford University Press.

At the moment, I read aloud a chapter a week of The Story of Science to a few kids at a local coffee shop, and then we have a lively chat. What do you hope every reader takes from your stories?
What do I hope my readers will take from the books? I hope they’ll learn to think. To do that they’ll need to read beyond my books. In this Information Age, being able to find information, process it, and then make use of it, is an essential skill (and it’s fun too).

You are certainly a history geek (that’s a compliment.) What are your other passions in life?
My family comes first. I have three children and five grandchildren and they are all perfect. (Can you hear them laughing in the background?)
I’m awed by the homeschoolers I meet. They are all great. I really mean that. Maybe it’s because those who take the time to come to a conference or a book-signing are special. I don’t meet those who stay home.

For more information on A History of US or The Story of Science, check out Joy Hakim’s website.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us on GeekMom. Best of luck on your new series, Joy!

Emphasis On Testing Cheats Everyone

Wikimedia Commons CCA 2.5 Generic


SAT language scores aren’t near the levels seen in the early 1970’s.  Some test-takers resort to cheating, most recently seven teens from Great Neck, NY, who hired an impersonator to stand in (well, sit in) for them. The company that administers the SAT estimates cheating, mostly by collaboration, occurs in only one-tenth of 1 percent of the 2.25 million students who take the test annually. That seems insignificant, but it underscores a larger problem—our test-obsessed educational system.

E. D. Hirsch Jr., author of The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed that declining verbal scores have to do with enduring school days stripped of “substantial and coherent lessons concerning the human and natural worlds…” He goes on to note,

The most credible analyses have shown that the chief causes were not demographics or TV watching, but vast curricular changes, especially in the critical early grades. In the decades before the Great Verbal Decline, a content-rich elementary school experience evolved into a content-light, skills-based, test-centered approach.

I don’t agree with Hirsch’s basic stance that a core curriculum be taught in every U.S. school but he’s got a point. It’s not a new point. Learning has taken a hit heavy hit from the emphasis on standardized tests. The zombifying effect on schools, teachers and kids brought by high stakes testing isn’t pretty.

Even in the best districts, attaining those all-important numbers eliminates opportunities for innovation and time to work with students’ interests. Less stellar districts see their schools under test-heavy siege charged with getting results or getting eliminated.  This drive also shapes the kind of material students see, relentlessly preparing them to reach higher for the Almighty Score while giving scant attention to more complex yet essential skills for higher learning like critical thinking, creativity, initiative, and persistence.

Why this emphasis on testing? We assume policy-makers know what they’re doing. Surely they haven’t been restructuring education based on bare numbers unless they have substantial proven results. Greater competitiveness on the world market or at least greater individual success?


Here are the facts from my book:

National test scores

It’s widely assumed that national test score rankings are vitally important indicators of a country’s future. To improve those rankings, national core standards are imposed with more frequent assessments to determine student achievement (meaning more testing).

Do test scores actually make a difference to a nation’s future?

Results from international mathematics and science tests from a fifty-year period were compared to future economic competitiveness by those countries in a study by Christopher H. Tienken. Across all indicators he could find minimal evidence that students’ high test scores produce value for their countries. He concluded that higher student test scores were unrelated to any factors consistently predictive of a developed country’s growth and competitiveness.

In another such analysis, Keith Baker, a former researcher for the U.S. Department of Education, examined achievement studies across the world to see if they reflected the success of participating nations. Using numerous comparisons, including national wealth, degree of democracy, economic growth and even happiness, Baker found no association between test scores and the success of advanced countries. Merely average test scores were correlated with successful nations while top test scores were not. Baker explains, “In short, the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance . . .”   He goes on to speculate whether testing [or forms of education emphasizing testing] itself may be damaging to a nation’s future.

Individual test scores

What about individual success?

Educational reformer Alfie Kohn explains, “Research has repeatedly classified kids on the basis of whether they tend to be deep or shallow thinkers, and, for elementary, middle, and high school students, a positive correlation has been found between shallow thinking and how well kids do on standardized tests. So an individual student’s high test scores are not usually a good sign.”

Why do we push standardized tests if it has been demonstrated that the results are counterproductive? Well, we’ve been told that this is the price children must pay in order to achieve success. This is profound evidence of societal shallow thinking, because the evidence doesn’t stack up.

Research shows that high test scores in school don’t correlate with later accomplishments in adulthood such as career advancement or social leadership.

We’ve known this for a long time. Back in 1985, the research seeking to link academic success with later success was examined. It was appropriated titled “Do grades and tests predict adult accomplishment?

The conclusion?


The criteria for academic success isn’t a direct line to lifetime success. Studies show that grades and test scores do not necessarily correlate to later accomplishments in such areas as social leadership, the arts, or the sciences. Grades and tests only do a good job at predicting how well youth will do in subsequent academic grades and tests. They are not good predictors of success in real-life problem solving or career advancement.

Kids certainly cheat because they haven’t prepared for the test, but they also may cheat because they simply see the whole testing game as a farce.  A survey of 43,000 high school students showed that 59 percent admitted cheating on a test during the past year.

What can we do?

Some of us homeschool.

Some parents submit compelling letters telling schools they will not permit their children to be tested, part of a larger opt out movement.

Some are heartened by the ever-growing list of four year colleges that don’t require the ACT or SAT for admission.

Do you think high-stakes testing cheats our kids?


Muse of Nerds: Robots and Creative Writing

Ben, Luke, Mary and Lilianna Design Their Robot Camps

This past summer Siena College held robotics camps for children ages 7 – 12. They were a huge success, with children learning how to build and program robots, plus, understand the physics behind the movements. Working with NXT can be fun, but challenging. To keep up the interest behind the mechanics, each camp had a storyline that the kids were following. Every day of camp involved reading a chapter of an adventure, with the challenge of the day reflecting what the characters were facing in the story. It highlighted what robots can be used for in real life (underwater, outer-space.)

For the campers, it was a fun week. However, for my two children and the camp director’s two children, that camp took a year to put together as part of their creative writing program. That’s right- a summer robotics camp was constructed by children for children. No wonder it worked so well. How did this come about? How does creative writing tie into robots?

A few summers ago, Dr. Michele McColgan (next month’s interviewee for Muse of Nerds), a physics instructor at Siena College, ran a robotics camp for kids using The Mayan Adventure. Instead of random assignments on building and programming each day, the kids followed a storyline where their robots helped the characters on their adventure. Four kids in the camp were her two children, Mary and Ben, and my two, Lilianna and Luke.

Michele really loved teaching robotics to kids this way, but there weren’t many programs like The Mayan Adventure. Robotics are not a staple in the average classroom yet, so teaching curricula are limited. I offered to help her by writing up some story lines that she could tie into robot challenges. We both thought it would be a great idea to work together. And then life continued to keep us busy.

We both homeschool our children, and we thought of a great way to meet both needs. The four children would write story lines and then put together robotic challenges for a future camp. This would help Michele in her work, plus provide a fun and exciting creative writing and advanced robotics course for our kids. This is the same group that did RPG’s with creative writing with me the year before.

At the time, Lilianna was 14, Luke 11, Mary 11, and Ben was 10. The boys and girls worked as two groups. They spent Thursday afternoons in the Fall at my house writing their stories. The challenge was to have each chapter end with some movement challenge the robots could accomplish. The girls had written a real NXT robot into the storyline. The boys had a character inside a huge robot that acted out the challenges.

Ben sets up the “lake” challenge.
Lilianna setting up the “Spiderbot” challenge.

In the Spring, the kids went over to the Siena campus to work on robot design and programming. Since it would be a beginner’s camp, example robots and code would be provided for the students. The four kids also put up a website where all of the information for camp was held. The boy’s story was called New World, and the girls’ The Geek, The Rat and The Underwater Dome. They took photos and screenshots, illustrated scenes, even made videos to help the campers. Michele scheduled four camps: two for each story. The first group would be a test camp, which the four designers could adjust what didn’t work in time for the next group.

‘Spiderbot’ challenge.
Reading that day’s chapter out loud.
Luke helping a student.

The barely had to change a thing. Their hard work and attention to detail made for flawless camps where students were engaged and learning. The four designers were helpers at the camp to watch their hard work come to life. It was amazing to see a real-life goal be reached. I was so proud of them. Michele was proud, and also relieved to finally something new for her popular camps.

Our kids had dreamed of putting their robot stories into a book and become very rich, but for now, everything is free online (click on the titles above.) Please check it out, and leave some comments and feedback that I will pass on to the designers. If you use it in your classroom, let me know!

Welcome to the Internet, Growing Without Schooling!

September 14 was a momentous day for homeschoolers—and anyone interested in education. On the anniversary of the death of education pioneer John Holt, Holt Associates has made freely available all the back issues of Growing Without Schooling magazine for anyone, anywhere, to read.

In 1995, Growing Without Schooling changed my life and dramatically shaped the lives of my kids—most of whom hadn’t yet been born. I was staying home with my firstborn daughter, still getting the hang of nursing and babywearing, when I encountered John Holt’s name, and the name of his magazine, on an AOL discussion board. I sent away for a copy of GWS, and upon its arrival I was completely gobsmacked. Here were families from all over the country—all over the world, even—writing letters about how their kids were growing up without school. These kids were doing amazing, sparkling, fascinating things; they were entering science fairs and making pottery and performing at festivals and writing computer programs and mastering calligraphy and publishing comic books. They were busy, they were joyful, and they were head over heels in love with learning.

This, I thought. This is what I want for my kids. I subscribed to the magazine and waited eagerly for my copy each month. I was a subscriber until it ceased publication in 2001. I still have all those back issues—I’ve moved them from New York to Virginia to California. I purged pretty ruthlessly before the last big cross-country move—all my weaving magazines went to a lucky gal on Freecycle—but Growing Without Schooling made the trip with me.

I’m thrilled that now everyone has access to these inspiring journals that are a form of living history. Founded in 1977, long before there was this magical thing called the Internet, the magazine was a way for homeschooling and unschooling families to connect with each other, sharing adventures and advice. Nowadays we do this via blogs and Facebook and email and Yahoogroups. John Holt was a visionary in many respects, and one of the most profound was this vision of his that brought families together to encourage and inspire each other at a time when raising kids outside the boundaries of traditional school was practically unheard of.

Click here to read all the back issues of Growing Without Schooling for free.

Education Week: Interest-Led Learning the Highlight of Homeschooling

I have to admit: I didn’t plan to homeschool. And yet, now that I’ve gone and done it (for more than a dozen years, now) I can tell you that the thing that kept me coming back for more, year after year, was seeing how my kids thrived. Our method of homeschooling leans heavily toward “unschooling” (a terrible term for a pretty amazing way to learn) which essentially lets the students decide upon their chosen subjects and how to study them. It’s less formal than standard forms of education, and you won’t find any spelling words, math drills, or flash cards here. What you might have seen, had you peeked in our window over the years, was a kindergartner learning about ancient Egypt or a ten-year-old teaching himself Old Norse.

A New York City editor who knew I homeschooled once asked me about unschooling. “How does it work?” she wondered. I think she was really asking, “How can letting your kids be in control of their own education possibly work??” I know she’s not the only one who wonders.

First, let me disabuse you of the notion that unschooling equals wild, wanton children running with scissors through a house with no rules and no napkins. Just about anyone who’s spent time with my boys — now 16 and 18 — will tell you that they are polite, well-behaved, and respectful individuals who can carry on a conversation with adults and children alike.

The basis of our home education has always been interest-led learning. My job was to facilitate, to help them learn to learn about their varied interests. I could bore you with detailed accounts of the various and sometimes wacky activities we’ve done over the years, but since I’ve got more experience under my belt at this “alternative” method of education than others with younger kids, I thought I’d take a minute to tell you that yes, it does work. Of course, this depends on one’s measure of success. For me, it’s not the material things like money and prestige. I will have succeeded in my mind if my kids are happy in their lives and able to support themselves and their future families in a comfortable manner. We’ve achieved the happiness. The financial independence is following at a bit slower clip, but it’s coming.

Let me tell you about my kids.

lego, forced perspective, education week
Forced perspective “Seige of Leningrad”

My youngest was a late reader. He’s an auditory learner and the visuals of reading (and math, for that matter) were harder for him. He was eight or nine when he was desperate to get in on all the fun of Harry Potter. I opted not to read the books out loud to him, instead telling him that, “When you can read Harry Potter, you can read Harry Potter.” He’d finished the first book within a month.

Forced perspective “Seige of Leningrad”

Today, he’s the guy we call LEGO Junkie. His passion is creating and building with LEGO bricks. (“That sounds so juvenile, Mom,” he tells me.) But it’s more than building. He crafts elaborate dioramas of World War II battle scenes and other historic events, researched for accuracy. He’s taken to sharing his work online, which requires the ability to take good photos, so he’s taught himself about photography, working with a light box and other effects. One of the impressive skills he’s taught himself is the trick of forced perspective, a building technique that allows him to make objects in his diorama appear closer or farther away in his photos. He’s become adept enough at building that he’s won numerous building contests online (competing with both adults and youth) and hosted several contests of his own. Next month, we’re traveling to BrickCon so he can meet many of his online friends in real life. He’s currently working at a local restaurant, indulging another passion — food and cooking — twenty hours each week.


Performing at the Waikoloa Bowl Japanese Tsunami Relief Concert

My eldest found his passion six years ago when he first picked up an ‘ukulele. He took some lessons, taught himself more, and has had the opportunity to study with some of the best ‘ukulele players in the business. His passion for the music led him to create Live ‘Ukulele (initially with a friend, though he hasn’t been involved in years) when he was fourteen. He writes, codes, tabs, and records and edits video for the site, which is now one of the top ten ‘ukulele sites on the web and to date has pulled in over 2.5 million hits. He sells ad space on the site, maintains customer relations, and does his own bookkeeping. He’s the beginning ‘ukulele instructor this year (and last) at the Kahumoku ‘Ohana Music and Lifestyle Workshop, created by Grammy award-winner Keoki Kahumoku, and he’s in the final stages of becoming an instructor through the University of Hawai‘i. He’s interested in finding a piece of land where he can homestead and live a self-sufficient lifestyle, in between music gigs. At eighteen, he is opting not to go to college, but rather to pursue the life that he has crafted for himself.

Lest you think otherwise, let me clarify for you that I know nothing of playing music of any kind and my most elaborate LEGO structure to date was a decidedly square farmhouse. I did not teach any of these skills to my boys; they learned them because they were interested in learning them. Given the chance to explore a variety of interests, each has found his passion and pursues it — and all of the extra “lessons” that go with it — because it’s what they’re interested in, not because it’s mandated by any curriculum.

The path that these boys have followed is far from traditional, and yet while pursuing their interests, they’ve managed to learn to read (both are avid readers), write, and do arithmetic (though we’ve followed a standard curriculum for math).

In truth, the lady who turned up her nose and told me that “Homeschoolers are a little…weird” when I first started was probably right. My kids are a little weird. It’s not “normal,” this way of learning. They don’t carry a stack of textbooks, they don’t follow the crowd, and they certainly don’t face the problems of the cookie cutter system that Seth Godin recently blogged about. It doesn’t appear that either of these kids is destined for an Ivy League college — and maybe not college at all. Neither of them feel the call to do what’s expected of most kids at this age. But I have no doubt that they’re going to be just fine.

What do you think? Are you appalled at the idea of trusting our children with their education? Or can you see the possibilities?

Education Week: Boost Learning & Fun With Special Interest Groups

multi-age bagpipe band,
Image by L. Weldon


We like spending time with people who delight in the same things that fascinate us. That might be playing bagpipes, understanding Civil War strategy, making homemade cheese, or brewing beer. Who doesn’t love talking about a favorite topic? It’s certainly easy to build friendships that way. Shared interests also foster greater enthusiasm and motivate us to expand our knowledge. That’s why interest-based groups make so much sense for our kids.

In my family, interest-based groups are an important part of homeschooling life. We have formed a number of these groups over the years. Some, like a history club made up of eager parents and not-so-eager young children, barely lasted long enough for a few meetings. Others have lasted ten years.


teen science club, kids interested in science, hands-on learning,
Image by L. Weldon


Our Science Club

The most successful has been our boy’s science club. It was started by five families with nine boys between the ages of seven and eleven. When we began it was highly structured. We met regularly at each other’s homes. Parents took turns planning a project or experiment, got the materials, explained the educational principles underlying the activity, and if things didn’t turn out as planned (actually quite frequently) it was usually a parent who searched for answers.

As time went by, more and more control over the science club was naturally taken over by the boys. They planned what they wanted to do and figured out what they’d need in order to do it. They decided whose house was best for that activity and when the day came, together they carried out the project or experiment, often improvising with different approaches.  If things didn’t turn out they searched for their own answers. Although nearby, parents didn’t hover to assure their safety nor insist that they officially learn the principles behind each activity. Our boys remained safe, happy, and increasingly savvy about many branches of science while running their own science club. Their projects included various propulsion systems designed to shoot tennis balls, a 12 foot high trebuchet, and a hovercraft which managed to get off the ground but not (as they’d planned) with a passenger. Over the years one family moved away and another was welcomed to the club. Now the youngest members are 17. The older boys have gone on to college, several into the sciences and one to Harvard on a full scholarship. Since they shared the honorary title of Science Club President over the years, it probably didn’t hurt to put that on the college application.


Image by L. Weldon


Making Interest-Based Groups Successful

There are some lessons we’ve learned that can help make any interest-based group successful.

1. Build on what your children love to do. If they adore taking hikes it’s easy to expand on that. Depending on what your children and others who join in decide, the group may expand to bird watching, letterboxing, geocaching, nature sketching, Volksmarching, any number of related activities. Or they may choose to stick to the simple pleasure of hiking. Your children may not be hikers, but prefer fashioning swords from household objects to joust with their siblings. There are plenty of ways to expand on those interests as well. Consider forming a special-interest group to enjoy fencing, foam fighting, Society for Creative Anachronism, writing and enacting scenes from the times of knights or high seas pirates, or live action role-playing games. Just about any interest can spark friendship and learning in a group of children.

2. Consider factors such as age range, group size and location before starting a group.  What factors are likely to contribute to interesting, enriching and fun experiences?  How far are you willing to travel? Flexibility is important. For example if your daughter is eager to start up a journaling group for girls ages 11 to 13, you might consider forming a group for younger siblings who can meet at the same time for their own interest-based group (as long as they leave their older sisters alone!).

3.  Invite potential members. Some interest-based groups develop out of casual get-togethers between friends. Some are formed as sub-groups within larger organizations such as block clubs, churches, or homeschool support groups. And others are the result of invitations spread on forums, lists, library bulletin boards and across homeschool networks.  How do you want to form the group?

4. Get started. For older kids, you may want to hold an informal organizing get-together at the local park, library meeting room, or your backyard. Gather ideas from the kids in attendance by encouraging them to brainstorm what they’d like to do and how often they’d like to do it.  Toss out questions to keep the ideas flowing and write down their suggestions. If they’re teens, let them run this meeting on their own as much as possible. This first get-together is also the easiest time to get some guidelines established. Consider questions such as: Do you want to be open to new members once you’re established? Do you prefer to agree to some basic rules or accommodate as the need arises?  How will responsibility for group activities be shared?

Or simply launch into the first session instead of holding an organizing meeting. After making apple butter and dipping candles with your new heritage club, or enjoying an afternoon making puppets and putting on an impromptu puppet show with other new members, they’ll understand what group sessions entail. Their suggestions for activities, group name, and potential rules will more easily flow from that initial encounter.

5.  Once your get-togethers begin, make sure that unstructured time is included. Build in ample time for kids to spend together after the activities are over. Friendships are a strong factor in motivating kids to stick with special interest groups. Whenever possible, be open to the inevitable plans your children concoct with friends in these groups. It’s a powerful acknowledgement of one’s worth to spend time with friends who are equally crazy about model trains, skateboarding, manga, horses, or cake decorating.

6. Recognize that the group will grow and evolve.  It’s important to be open to changes. Get-togethers between friends often naturally drift toward other activities as interests change. More formal groups tend to continue on long after the originators have moved on. An interest-based group your children start may last only a short time, but it still provides learning as well as enjoyable experiences. Some families launch quite a few such groups as their children grow up. You may be doing the same thing without recognizing that toddler playgroups and older children’s regular enrichment activities function just as interest-based groups do.


Wikimedia Commons


Examples of successful interest-based groups

~A cooking club for preteen girls meets at members’ homes to make (and eat) themed foods and plan recipes for next club event. They’ve made various ethnic meals, fancy desserts and food to donate.

~A multi-age group of stop motion movie-makers (youngest member five years old). They chat online about individual projects and also make collaborative movies. They have hosting screenings of their short films for an appreciative audience of relatives.

~A nature sketching and journaling group made up of families who schedule hikes in different wilderness areas to write, draw, and share their work.

~A boys’ book group based on sci-fi and adventure books. They vote on which book to read, read it the month before the meeting, then after the book discussion take part in activities such as scavenger hunts, making costumes and re-enacting scenes, testing tactics used in the book, or using repurposed materials to build something mentioned in the book.

~A multi-age rock climbing group which practices at indoor climbing walls as well as outdoor locations.

~A young children’s hands-on science club.

~A youth and adult fiber works group with projects, farm trips and visits to other spinning/weaving guilds.

~A group of families who get together to make costumes, chain mail and armor for re-enactments.

~A beachcombers group. Young children play along the waterside while adults and older children monitor ecological conditions for a non-profit organization.

~A debate and elocution society which prepares for regular memory-based recitations as well as occasional debating society competitions. The members’ aspirations include acting, politics, and law.

~A cartoonists’ meeting. Young members work on graphic novels, cartoon strips, and cards.

~A multi-age sculptor’s group. They meet to hear guest speakers which have included welders and mineralogists. They go on field trips and occasionally meet at one another’s homes to work on projects together.

You may find, as my family has, that interest-based groups are a favorite activity with extraordinary benefits. You may even notice that your child’s eagerness rekindles interests of your own. Maybe it’s time to enjoy the fellowship of other enthusiasts as you master the bagpipes or learn to make cheese.


GeekMom Debate: My Kids Hated School. So We Dropped Out (Temporarily).

Boy with shark puppet
Giving an oral report on South African sharks to the homeschool Passport to the World Club. Image: Andrea Schwalm

Welcome to the first edition of GeekMom Debate! GeekMoms are nothing if not opinionated, so we’re giving them a chance to present different sides of the same topic. For another take on the question of dealing with kids who hate school, read Alisson Clark’s post My Kid Hates School. I’m (Mostly) OK with That.

As an adult, I am a good student. I had a graduate school professor once tell me, “I’ve never had someone pay such…such rapt attention to me before. And your papers…are a pleasure to read. You make me feel like a very good teacher.”

This is in stark contrast to the twelve years of low-average report cards still archived in my mom’s bedroom dresser drawer, all reading identically: “polite student, loves to read, tends to daydream, does not work to potential,” like the droning chant of a dozen disappointed matryoshka nesting dolls. Academically and emotionally, I self-identify as a late bloomer and I am sure my experiences with education have shaped the decisions I’ve made for my children.

My younger son asked recently, seemingly out of nowhere: “That reminds me! About school: What’s wrong with laughing? Why can’t there be laughing and learning all the time?”

“You can have both laughing and learning. Just not always at the same time,” I replied. “We have to learn that not everything gets to be fun. Sometimes, you just have to suck it up and deal.”

For a long time, though, my children were neither laughing NOR learning in school. My bookshelves at home are a hard-covered testimony to our journey: The Explosive Child, From Emotions to Advocacy, Overcoming Dyslexia. All of this reading was not changing one important thing, however: my children hated school.

“I hate this place, Mommy,” they would tell me in their piping, Disney-woodland-creature voices as I dropped them off in the morning. “Back to prison,” they would moan—the one time of day these two seemed to come together to agree on anything.

And then, each night, we would embark on another two-hour, tear-filled psychological journey through the five stages of grief on our way to completing homework assignments that the teachers perkily assured me should take “no more than twenty minutes” but required hand-eye coordination and literacy and numeracy skills that my sons were just not developing at the same rate as their peers.

Ultimately, special education supports and services were provided to my children at school. But even then, they still disliked school, did not find most of the work they were asked to do meaningful, appropriate, or remotely enjoyable. To them, work was done only to avoid parent-imposed negative consequences: loss of TV, loss of video games, loss of computer time. There was no ownership or pride in what they were doing.

Was this a healthy way to develop?

I wanted my sons to develop the critical thinking skills and “positive habits of the mind” that ultimately shape personal character — to learn to be “fair minded,” “inquisitive,” “empathic,” and “confident.” Yes, I knew the dangers of allowing my children to think that the world was always an accommodating place. I believed that children thrived when working to meet high expectations. But I felt like my children, because of their learning disabilities, were giving up on learning.

So, I listened to what my children were saying and decided to homeschool them. For two years, we visited every museum, aquarium, and hands-on science program in our region, passed history books back and forth as we read together in pajamas on the couch, watched Shakespeare on video and re-enacted the best deaths, and participated in countless programs with local homeschooling collectives.

My plan had never been to homeschool indefinitely. My goal was simply to engineer learning experiences that were pleasurable and relevant, reignite this flame. Reboot our sense of joy and intellectual curiosity.

Last fall, after two years of care and growth, they returned to public school. Back to the same services and supports they’d left. They were complimented on their profound depth of knowledge on certain topics and chastised for their unwillingness to follow rules that did not make sense to them. They met or exceeded academic expectations. And they seemed … happier. More willing, more receptive, more curious.

This year they entered high school and middle school.

“How was it?!?” I asked after their first day, before they could even get through the door.

“Long, but actually very interesting,” my older son said. “Fun!” was my younger son’s more concise reply.

All right, I thought as I listened to them and laughed. THIS we can work with.