Recommended resources (not just for homeschooling)

resources.jpgWhen I visited Homestars in October, I shared a lot of information and it may have been overwhelming. As a reminder, here are the resources I had on display that day:

Alpha-Phonics, or How to Tutor, is essentially a book of word lists organized by phonetic pattern. The only difference is that Alpha-Phonics has large print intended for a child to read, and How to Tutor has additional sections on math and handwriting. I don’t recommend what he says about math and handwriting, but the advantage of using How to Tutor is that it’s easy to find used, and it causes you to use the methods I recommend instead of just having the child read from the book. With spelling practice, the game I’m working on, and UpWords (below) a beginning reader never needs to actually read the word lists. The best place to find this is on Bookfinder.

UpWords is similar to Scrabble, but instead of just building onto existing words, you can change them. MAT becomes MAP becomes MOP becomes FLOP becomes DROP and so on. This is a wonderful way for children to practice seeing the patterns in words, and much more fun than reading from a list. The best place to find this game is at thrift stores. If you’d rather not wait, it’s available at Wal-Mart/Kmart/Shopko/etc.

The ABCs and All Their Tricks is an encyclopedia of spelling patterns, based on analysis of over 17,000 common words. This isn’t necessary to teach reading, but it’s great for anybody who wants more detail. It’s more detailed than any phonics book I’ve seen. If I had had this book when I was ten, I might have made it to the national spelling bee. Which isn’t an important accomplishment in the whole scheme of things, but I would have been gratified. The best place to find this is on Bookfinder.

Cuisenaire Rods are a way for children to figure out how math works and understand more deeply than they would with traditional methods. Even when a child is playing with these, they’re learning math without knowing it. Rods are so versatile that I once taught binary to a fourth-grader, without even intending to! I can order these at wholesale prices, cheaper than you can buy them anywhere else.

Algebra models do for algebra what Cuisenaire Rods do for basic math. I can also order these at wholesale prices.

Fraction circles are a great way to represent fractions. You can visually demonstrate finding a common denominator, and why it’s necessary. I can order these at wholesale prices.

Geoboards are a hands-on way to learn two-dimensional geometry, allowing experimentation and correction without having to redraw. I can order square grid, isometric, and circular geoboards at wholesale prices.

Zome is a wonderful building system that can be a toy, or a tool for research scientists. People use it to teach geometry, chemistry, art, algebra, probability, physics, and intangible skills like critical thinking and collaboration. The best place to buy this used is probably eBay, but compare the prices there with new prices, because sometimes they’re close. If your budget is tight, you can start building with pipe cleaners and stir sticks.

Koosh balls or puffer balls help with concentration and lateral thinking, even for people who don’t have ADD. I’ve been amazed by how many people who don’t think they need it, think better with a toy in their hands. These are rarely available in stores, but I can order them.

Weapons of Mass Instruction is an expose of the traditional education system, written by a former teacher who had worked in a great variety of schools. After he had been named Teacher of the Year, he eventually quit in disgust, feeling he had wasted his time by trying to work within the system. He makes a compelling case for throwing out the script and encouraging students to learn freely. Even people who already encourage independent learning will be challenged by this book. The best place to find this is on Bookfinder.

The perverse nature of expectations

Many parents understand that if you have expectations for a child’s talents or accomplishments, you’re going to be disappointed. Even if they meet your expectations technically, the experience will be overshadowed by pressure. However, if you encourage whatever a child is interested in, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what they accomplish.

The same is true of expectations in any area of life. Expectations can cause us to miss possibilities we didn’t expect, or to focus on details and lose sight of the true goal, or even to settle for less than what could be, when the expectation is met.

What expectations do you try to live up to, intentionally or unconsciously, and where do they come from? How have expectations been detrimental to your education experiences?

Homeschooling is growing faster than public schooling

To quote the article:

“Data demonstrates that those who are independently educated generally score between the 65th and 89th percentile on [standardized tests], while those in traditional academic settings average at around the 50th percentile. … Yet surprisingly, the average expenditure for the education of a homeschooled child, per year, is $500 to $600, compared to an average expenditure of $10,000 per child, per year, for public school students.”

If you’d like to homeschool, I can help you with that. Even if you don’t know algebra, even if you think you can’t afford it, even if both parents work. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and I’d love to help you find it!

Why we need educational options

Hidden Talents

Christine Stratton, District Administrator for Menomonie schools, writes a weekly article in the Dunn County News. I responded to her most recent article with a letter to the editor:

Christine Stratton wants us to know that the public schools are not broken. She’s right. Our schools do exactly what they’re designed to do: place the same expectations on all students, regardless of how different they are.

In early elementary, students who don’t develop skills according to the prescribed timeline are labeled, and placed in a special class, and may never have the opportunity to catch up. In later years, students whose interests and talents diverge from the standard curriculum are pressured to go along with the system, whether or not it helps them toward their personal goals. Students who can’t learn effectively in the standard academic environment receive low grades that don’t reflect their true ability. Alternatively, if those students have a label, they receive special accommodations and an unspoken message that they’re less capable.

Whether for enrichment or assistance, every student I work with has needs that aren’t being met by the public school system. Realistically, such a large organization can’t be all things to all students, and that’s why so many people support charter schools, vouchers, or tax credits. We need to find a way, within the financial constraints we have, to allow for a variety of learning environments and let families choose what’s best for each student.

How I learned to teach

I started tutoring with no training or experience. I needed a job, they needed math tutors, I didn’t know there was anything more to it than helping with homework. I cringe at some of the things I did in my early years, but students gave me good reviews, and the director praised my habit of answering questions with questions.

I realized that most of math class was “monkey training” and I became determined to challenge students to a deeper understanding. I read books and articles about how we think and about unconventional methods of problem solving. I thought about my learning experiences over the years, and experimented while tutoring.

Then I started teaching at Chippewa Valley Technical College. Because of tutoring, I taught interactively. I wanted every class to be a conversation and an exploration. Unfortunately, my ingrained expectations of what schools and teachers should be interfered with developing my own style. I felt awkward being an authority figure over adults.

My first semester teaching, the older teachers said, “Trade students are stubborn. They won’t do anything unless they see how it will help them earn money.” They told me not to justify topics, but simply insist “It’s required for your program.”

By the end of the semester, I had decided trade students actually have trouble understanding if they can’t see how a topic relates to the real world. Then I went to a professional development seminar. And heard about contextual learning. And thought, “Egads, I was right! I’m not the first person to realize this!”

But even then, the only way I knew to be more contextual was to make up realistic word problems and use analogies to explain math rules. I wanted to help my students really understand math, but something wouldn’t click. I encouraged them to take risks, but other teachers and department policies made me hesitant to take risks myself.

At the end of my second semester, I had a week-long class on teaching methods. I dreaded the thought of sitting still for eight hours a day, four days in a row, cramming so much into my brain in a short time. I worried that I’d have to write a paper, and that the class would be graded.

To my great surprise, that class was exactly what I needed! The teacher, Deb Walsh, broke all the rules and told us it to do it too! She told us to form a partnership with students rather than pull rank. She told us to minimize lecture time and maximize opportunities for students to take responsibility for learning. She told us to quit blaming and punishing students for their natural reaction to the school environment. She told us to get students out of their seats, encourage community, and make our classes a positive, exciting experience. She proved that students would do more and better work, voluntarily, if we changed the whole system. She proved it by using us as a demonstration.

During the week, I was mentally overloaded and did less than half of the recommended reading. But Deb didn’t care, or maybe she couldn’t tell. I was so involved in processing these revolutionary ideas and thinking of ways to make the most of these new freedoms, I couldn’t take in any more.

The last day of class, Deb invited us to each write something on the whiteboard to sum up our experience that week. I wrote:

I have permission to be creative
and sing in class
and quit trying to act tough.
(I’m not very good at that.)

And I told her about a blog I had just discovered, and Standards-Based Grading.

I haven’t had the opportunity to teach in a classroom again (CVTC is as-needed), but I’ve been getting more unorthodox with every student I tutor. I’ve discovered more great teacher blogs, and I dream of starting a totally outside-the-box non-school where I would be more of a facilitator while students teach themselves.

But in the meantime, I have a lot to learn!

Truth is stranger than fiction

I’m reading Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto, a Teacher of the Year in New York. I thought I knew a lot about what’s wrong with schools, but this book is shocking me every time I turn the page.

I strongly recommend the book to anybody, but I must warn you, if your kids are headed for school in the fall, you’re likely to change your mind at the last minute.

Call me to discuss inexpensive options. The evaluation is always free, and you may not need ongoing tutoring. You can homeschool your children!

A teacher responds to the teacher’s union

Kristi LaCroix is a Wisconsin high school teacher. I never heard of her until a few days ago, but she’s been big news recently. Kristi doesn’t believe the teacher’s union (WEAC) is doing a good job representing her, and she started a Facebook group titled Freedom From Teachers’ Unions.  As a result, she’s experienced threats and harassment from supporters of the union, who are determined to recall Governor Walker and rollback Act 10.

I learned about Kristi when somebody sent me her weekly newsletter. The issue I read, titled “Lies My Union Told Me” is an excellent rebuttal of the five main talking-points she’s heard from her opponents. Considering all the complaints I’ve heard about teachers and school budgets, I think a lot of students and their parents will appreciate this article.

How To Personalize Education (without needing more teachers)

For some of these points, I have links to the website of a high school teacher who is innovating in his classroom, and finds that students are learning more, retaining more, and excited about it.

Make students responsible for their own learning.
The traditional system of points and grades is a terrible demotivator. Instead, we need to tell students what the learning goals are, give them ongoing feedback about their understanding of each point, allow them to continually improve, and make it their responsibility to follow through on what they need to do.

Encourage all learning styles and areas of intelligence.
Some students listen better while playing with a koosh ball. Some think better while standing, writing on a whiteboard, than while sitting, writing on paper. Some need to talk through a problem with a friend to have their lightbulb moment. Let them learn, and show what they’ve learned, in whatever way they can.

Use manipulatives and hands-on experiences to let students learn by exploration.
There are manipulatives available for every concept in math through at least algebra 2 and geometry, so why do we do everything on paper? Students need to develop their own understanding of concepts. If we feed them information, they tend to retain less. But if they figure something out for themselves, they’ve internalized it. When students learn how to learn for themselves, they can apply that process to anything they want to learn in the future.

Make homework personalized.
Some students need to practice equation solving hundreds of times before they get it down. Others need to work through a few representative problems slowly using multiple methods. Still others need to do application problems or none of it makes sense. Let them experiment and learn what they need to do to succeed.

Let teachers be facilitators, not dispensers of knowledge.
Nobody has all the answers about any subject, and nobody can make a subject clear to every student. Instead of talking for hours while they take notes, get them started, let them ask questions, and show them how to search for the answers. Let them teach each other, and they’ll also teach us.

Use student questions and student-generated projects.
When learning to write well, it really doesn’t matter what students write about. When learning about the conservation of energy, there are a great variety of possible projects that would demonstrate the concept. When we allow students to investigate topics that are interesting to them, they take ownership of the experience and work harder. What they learn will be meaningful to them, they will remember it, and they will build on it. When they present the results to their classmates, they’ll be excited and the students will learn from each other.

Get parents involved in more than just chaperoning field trips.
Most parents don’t have a teaching degree, but how many important things have you learned from somebody who didn’t? People who aren’t professional teachers are experts at other things, and have a variety of perspectives on the applications of academic subjects. Parents may find innovative ways to help students who don’t fit the mold, or may be great resources for students doing projects.

Hello World!

While at UW-Eau Claire, I tutored in the Academic Skills Center and rediscovered why I love math. After college I knocked around for about eight years, doing dead-end jobs that had nothing to do with anything I had studied, and the whole time all I wanted to do was tutor. Starting last summer I took the plunge, and although, like a teacher, I don’t get paid for half of what I do, this is the best job I’ve ever had. I love watching lightbulbs turn on!