I’m not going to be guilt-tripped about homeschooling

It’s not about charter schools. While I used to be firmly anti-charter schools, I have come to change my mind over the years. Vesia Hawkins, in particular, has persuaded me that for students who are frequently marginalized and under served by traditional public schools, charters are an important choice. For example, “only 17.5% of Black/Hispanic/Native American students read at grade level,” but minority students who attend charter schools focused on their success do better on test scores.

And though I used to be firmly anti-test, I have become persuaded that we cannot ignore them. Even though researchers can predict test scores solely on parental socio-economic status, regardless of educational quality, with the exception being the very worst schools, we cannot pretend these tests don’t matter. To quote Jasmine Lane, “Only those that have never had to worry about passing standardized exams have the privilege to say that tests don’t matter.”  So yes, I test my children.

I happen to think that our local public schools get quite a bit right, and are actually doing a very good job in many senses that the general public tended to ignore pre-COVID. For example, they provide medical and dental care, vision checkups, two hot meals a day, clothing for children in need, weekend food for parents who can’t afford to feed their children, referrals to social service agencies for the homeless, etc. These are all real, tangible benefits that our public schools provide and I think they’re critical family supports.

My choices are not because of ethnicity or race. Charter schools aren’t available in West Virginia, and neither is school choice—you get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit. My local public school is 92% white. West Virginia as a whole is 93% white. It’s not like my children’s diversity exposure would increase by attending my local public school. But, through their many extracurricular activities pre-COVID, they met children from all income tax brackets, from those whose parents can’t afford to buy their children lunch every day to those who hire full time, live-in language tutors. Because I have more flexible time as a homeschooling parent, I have led clubs and other extracurricular activities for all children.

My choice doesn’t impact what’s going on in the local public school. I still pay taxes (60% of my local property tax are levies for the district), and the fact that my children don’t attend means that more levy money is available for the local children because it’s not spent on my children. Furthermore, 25% of the local district’s funding comes through excess levies. That’s $135 per student, or $3200 per class that isn’t spent on homeschooled children in my district and stays in the district even though my children don’t attend.

Yes, the local district loses state aid on a per-child basis, but the statewide pot is enlarged for others because my children (and 20,000+ other children in West Virginia) aren’t getting a share. Only 12% percent of WV school funding is from federal public education funds. That means that West Virginia saves $247,456,000 a year by not educating homeschooled children, or almost a thousand dollars per student—nearly 8.5% of the total per student funding.  I don’t think many parents would appreciate their district’s budget being cut by 8.5% if homeschooled students moved back into public schools wholesale.

Parents of gifted children, especially gifted children with other exceptionalities to compound the issue, seek out private schools and many, many of them home school because public schools are not cutting it, after years of begging and pleading and IEP meetings. Often these children have significant mental health issues because of years of their needs not being met. I’m not willing to let that happen to my children.

I’m morally obligated to do my best by my children because they are my children. They are totally dependent on me for their food, shelter, clothing, and every other support in their life—and I made them that way by choosing to have them. I have to see my commitment through. If providing them with adequate support means providing them with more than my local public schools can provide, then that’s what I’ll do. Making sure our children have a better life than ours is part of what the US is all about.

Yes, my children would probably slide on through in public school, because as a middle class parent in the modern USA, I practice High Intensity Parenting. We make sure our children do the schoolwork that is assigned, and then we go beyond by doing after schooling with our children, signing them up for academic camps, theater classes, sports clinics and enriching their education in the ways that public schools are not. Nearly 70% of West Virginia fourth graders are not proficient readers. I want my children to be proficient readers and I will teach them myself if that’s what I have to do.

I would argue that parents of color who can afford it do the same thing—time spent on parenting has increased across all social classes in the United States, but middle and upper middle class parents spend 7 times as much on their children’s extracurricular activities as lower SES parents. If I’m going to spend money on a field trip, I don’t feel guilty about making sure it’s a field trip that my children actually have a real interest in—and those public school field trips are among the endangered classroom “extras”( like end-of-year performances) that we have deemed unnecessary.

It’s not that parents are adjusting the expectations of the local public schools—those are set in stone at the state and federal level. At least in West Virginia, school administrators, teachers, and parents don’t have much say in how schools are set up, no matter their SES. What about the general expectations of society for the local public medical system? We’ve had so much success changing that at the local level, haven’t we? Oh, wait, that’s not true. Why would it be true for schools? These are systematic issues, bigger than any one parent, teacher, or principal.

I was wildly underprepared for college level courses by my local public high school, but it wasn’t a bad school. They did the best they could with what they had for the largest number of children. My teachers were genuinely caring human beings, for the most part. But sometimes, the best that you can do just isn’t good enough. My choices were limited by my preparation, and I want my children to be able to make whatever choice they want.

Moreover, my children’s attendance at their local public school wouldn’t make it better for the children suffering in the bad public schools—and yes, they do exist, albeit not in my local district. My local district is one of the best in the state. Refusing to eat my dinner does not make anything better for a child hungry elsewhere in the world.

That said, my children may not deserve better than another child, but since I made the choice to bring them into this world, they deserves the very best that I can offer them. It’s my moral duty as a parent to do my best for them, and that means giving them every advantage I can provide—which does include a sense of humility about their privilege. I’m not ashamed of doing my best for my children, and I don’t think any other parent with a functioning moral compass would be either. In the end, my children are not sacrifices to an ineffable public good.

a planning overview, from high level to daily detail

The first thing that I do is decide what topics I want my children to study. I made a decision a long time ago to do Well-Trained Mind style homeschooling, and I haven’t regretted it.

Since my youngest is 5, this is more or less her kindergarten year. I have less stress about kindergarten years, keeping in mind that the most important thing is to teach her to read. This led me to think about reading curricula, and in August, I decided to use Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. I decided to use RightStart Level A for math, and the Core Knowledge Kindergarten History and Geography Unit 1: Let’s Explore Our World as a quick pass at social studies. State law requires that I teach science, too, and I’m fond of Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding. I also wanted to use parts of the Memoria Press (MP) Kindergarten program with the Kindergarten Supplemental Science & Enrichment Set.

Generally, I keep to my work schedule at the Well-Trained Mind Academy, which is five days a week, Monday through Friday. I don’t ask my youngest to do academics on Thursdays because they go to co-op, but my older child does math and some others things on Thursday (that’s a different blog post). My girls take my vacation days, too, which means an extra long mid-winter break that I’ve input into Scholaric as well. That gives me approximately 34 weeks of dedicated academics, or 170 possible days.

Now, this all sounds like a lot, but I use Scholaric to make a daily checklist, which is much less intimidating.

This is where Scholaric shines. 100 EZ Lessons is obviously, 100 lessons. Scholaric is lovely because I can input our vacation days, and then have it automatically lay out the lessons day by day. This way, even though  I know that we’ll finish up in March. (I’ve an idea that I’ll pick up with Ordinary Parents Guide to Teaching Reading and Phonics Pathways then.)  Similarly, RightStart has a set number of lessons. I spread the BFSU lessons out over three weeks or so, and I can tell Scholaric to do that for me. The CK social studies is designed to take six weeks, but I’ll let it go longer, too.

Once I’ve input what I want to do in Scholaric, I can then print out daily checklists. This helps me not have to remember what I had planned, because my life is busy and I’m absentminded.  If we don’t get to something, for whatever reason, it’s a simple click to bump that item to the next day and have it ripple down to the planned days in Scholaric. If we do more, then I can bump back too. I can also easily do loop planning this way, even if I take random days off. The printed checklists double as items I can add to a portfolio, especially when the bulk of the work is out loud.

Now, as happened with reading and my youngest this autumn, when the program I’d picked out doesn’t work, then it’s a simple matter to “hide” the row in Scholaric and replace it with something else. When I’ve settled on a curriculum, I rarely spend more than 20 minutes in a given week tweaking and printing.

We’re now using All About Reading, which is also clearly delineated as lesson-based, and therefore easy to input into Scholaric. I dropped the MP Kindergarten program because it’s been a difficult autumn, but I want to try and pick it back up again–I love having the books all prepared and the Q & As ready for me. I want to add in the Saxon K morning meeting work, too.

It’s perfectly normal for children to be on different grade levels in different subjects, especially when children have special education needs, and so this ongoing tweaking that I do in Scholaric helps me customize the education to the child. The daily checklists help me get it done on a daily basis, while the ability schedule lessons out to the future helps me do a bit of long-term planning.

5 Good Books on the “Why?” of Classical Education

Climbing Parnassus by Simmons

This was one of the first books I read about classical education, and I will confess that at first I didn’t quite “get” it. It seemed elitist, and a little oddball and frankly boring. Then, after doing some other reading, I read it again, and then I read it a third time, and only then did I “see.” Like so much of “classic literature,” you really need to have some background knowledge in order to get the full meat of the argument. I’ve chosen some of my favorite, more accessible quotes that I think make some good points about classical education.

“…the kind of citizens we wish to create and the kind of polity we wish to engender. For education is never neutral. Embedded within any course of study lie assumptions about what people ought to know, and about human nature itself: Are we Man or Machine? Education is, in the end, an auxiliary of philosophy — an embodiment of aims and ideals.

Humanism is “the belief that man is more important than his environment or his possessions; and that his fundamental business is not to understand [physical] nature, though that is one of his problems, nor to earn a livelihood, though that is one of his duties, but so to lead his life as to make the best of human nature and above all of what is characteristic of, peculiar to, and highest in human nature; or, as the Greeks put it, to achieve the arête [or ‘excellence’] of man.”

Matters of ethics, morality, and politics jostle as the vita beata, the good or happy life, is delineated, as it so supremely was during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. in Greece, an age that, according to Livingstone, “had to face the questions which — now veiled now visible, now remote now insistent — constitute the eternal human problem: what should men believe about life, how should they live it, in what state of society can the good life be best lived, [and] how can we create such a state?”

Closing of the American Mind by Bloom

This is another book that I stumbled through the first time I read it, and came back to again and again. While I’m not alone in having serious problems with his conclusions, the general line of his argument is difficult to ignore and worth considering. If you think of education as shaping future citizens, then thinking about how society should be is key to determining what education should be.

Allan Bloom died young, of AIDS, and had he lived, would no doubt have been an irascible curmudgeon, but his book made me think, and eventually I concluded that I believe in moral objectivism a la Kant: there is a limit to human behavior, that some actions are simply intolerable, no matter when, where, or how they take place.

There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.

The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance.

Relativism is necessary to openness

The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.

There is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything.

…when there are no shared goals or vision of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible?

Men must love and be loyal to their families and their peoples in order to preserve them. Only if they think their own things are good can they rest content with them. A father must prefer his child to other children, a citizen his country to others. That is why there are myths—to justify these attachments. And a man needs a place and opinions by which to orient himself.

Consider This by Karen Glass

To be honest, I’ve never been particularly attracted to Charlotte Mason style classical education. It seemed awfully soft around the edges, a sort of slacker-style education. My first encounters with it didn’t do much to change my mind. Sit around and read good books? That’s all?!

As I’ve become a more experienced homeschooler, and stepped a little away from my innate dislike of formal literature and literature analysis, I’ve become more aware of how our perception of current society is shaped by the books we read, even those set in the past. With great power comes great responsibility, and so I’ve become even more selective about choosing books in our homeschool.

Thinking about how literature shapes us, I picked up Consider This at exactly the right time to be receptive to ideas like:

answers to such questions as “what shall we teach and how shall we teach it?” begin with a much more fundamental question: “what is a person?” or perhaps the wider, “what is man?”

Her first two principles assert that “children are born persons” and “they are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.”

… education should create a metanarrative (or worldview) for children which will make sense of the world and create a standard of conduct by which they will desire to live.

A Defence of Classical Education by Livingstone

This was one of the first books about classical education that made innate sense to me. I later realized that most later arguments for classical education (including those in Climbing Parnassus) echoed this book, albeit from points of view that I didn’t necessarily understand at the time I read them.

Livingstone was writing at the height of the switch from classical education to “modern” Romantic education in the US & UK. All the current arguments about conceptual understanding versus procedural knowledge and utility versus background knowledge were derived from these first shots over the bow–only nowadays there’s no one left to coherently argue for the classical side. We must go back to the original debate to find our arguments.

It’s relatively short, and free of charge, and well worth flipping through. If my daughters reaped the benefit of classical education as per my favorite quote, I would be a happy woman:

Lord Morley says somewhere: “An educated man is one who knows when a thing is proved and when it is not. An uneducated man does not know.”

pg. 22

Norms and Nobility by Hicks

While I have serious qualms with many parts of this book, I think that there are some worthy arguments in this densely written book about the purpose and content of classical education. Hicks is a professional educator at private school, and his experience weighs in on his arguments. I am less impressed by the second half of the book wherein he actualizes his ideas. Generally, I finished this book unsatisfied with his supports and conclusions, but intrigued by the thread of the arguments.

The sublime premise of a classical education asserts that right thinking will lead to right, if not righteous, acting. … modern books on education which lay off this difficult premise by treating the mastery of thinking skills and the understanding of basic ideas in our Western (or any other) intellectual tradition as if they were sufficient ends of education. I cannot accept this. Nor am I convinced that an education aimed exclusively at the formation of a rational man will automatically assure mankind’s happiness or goodness.

pg vi

5 Good Books on Knowing Things

Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham

Knowing things brings pleasure. You cannot have the distinct enjoyment of listening to a book that riffs on the Odyssey and appreciating the way the author plays on the similarities and differences if you don’t know the Odyssey. Jazz without knowledge is merely random noise. Forcing students to wallow in their ignorance definitely brings confusion at best and hatred at worst because it will inevitably lead to failure.

There is no doubt that having students memorize lists of dry facts is not enriching. It is also true (though less often appreciated) that trying to teach students skills such as analysis or synthesis in the absence of factual knowledge is impossible.

Willingham

Making Kids Cleverer by Didau

I have deep reservations about Didau’s book, especially as it regards gifted children (who come from all social classes, albeit less identified in lower-SES groups). However, his central thesis is undeniable, especially if you have reviewed the questions on an intelligence test, as I have. We can make all our children “cleverer” and thus more successful as adults by systematically and purposefully placing factual knowledge in their essentially infinite, long-term, semantic memory to assist in overcoming limited working memory.

Fluid intelligence is our raw reasoning power, and is, as far as we can tell, fixed. Nothing we’ve tried as yet is able to increase it. Crystallised intelligence is the ability to apply what we know to new problems and can certainly be increased by adding to our store of knowledge. This is the central thesis of the book: more knowledge equals more intelligence.

When we compare the IQ of children of similar socio-economic status, most of the variance is explained by genes; but when the IQ scores of children of lower socio-economic status are compared, most of the variation is explained by environmental differences.

Didau

The Knowledge Deficit by E. D. Hirsch

In the US, I hear things like, “there will always be gaps” and “the important thing is to learn how to learn” and “children will teach themselves what they need to know.” But the truth is, that kind of laissez-faire attitude only benefits those children whose families can provide a home environment that greatly enriches their background knowledge, and thus their future success. All children can be made more academically successful by systematically and purposefully enriching their knowledge base.

Breadth of knowledge is the single factor within human control that contributes most to academic achievement and general cognitive competence. In contradiction to the theory of social determinism, breadth of knowledge is a far greater factor in achievement than socioeconomic status. The positive correlation between achieved ability and socioeconomic status is only half the correlation between achieved ability and the possession of general information. That is to say, being “smart” is more dependent on possessing general knowledge than on family background per se.

–pg. 106; E.D. Hirsch

How We Learn by Benedict Carey

The overlap on how we learn might not intuitively overlap with the importance of knowing things, but in fact, learning is all about adding to our our storehouse of knowledge. Without a clear knowledge base, all is “as one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” Even children who are “athletic,” “mathy,” or “precocious readers” need to have a knowledge base, often carefully tended by loving adults within a supportive home environment. Those children simply have more knowledge to understand (to discriminate) what is important to their area of expertise and so perform faster, quicker, better.

They’re “naturals.” We make a clear distinction between this kind of ability and expertise of the academic kind. Expertise is a matter of learning–of accumulating knowledge, of studying and careful thinking, of creating. It’s built, not born. The culture itself makes the same distinction between gifted athletes and productive scholars. Yet this distinction is also flawed in a fundamental way.

… the brain … perceives to learn. It takes the differences it has detected between similar-looking notes or letters or figures, and uses those to help decipher new, previously unseen material. … This “discrimination learning” builds on itself, the brain hoarding the benchmarks and signatures it eventually uses to read larger and larger chunks of information.

–pg 183; Carey

The Testing Charade by Koretz

Koretz is an expert on testing. There are some valid criticisms of his book, but he makes some excellent points about knowledge and testing and the results thereof–essentially, despite all we know about the importance of a well-rounded curriculum that supplies a wide knowledge base, our current US and UK education system, with its focus on high-stakes testing, is counterproductive to creating the kind of intellectual environment our students need.

Even in the area of intellectual development, what we really care about most is what he called “criterion behaviors”: the knowledge and skills that students are able to apply once they leave school. We can’t wait until students enter college or the workplace to do that—and wouldn’t be able to do it well even if we did wait—so instead we measure mastery of the school curriculum while kids are still in school. Moreover, even within that far narrower range, there is a great deal of student learning that we simply can’t measure well with standardized instruments.

high-stakes testing creates strong incentives to focus on the tested sample rather than the domain it is intended to represent. If you teach a domain better—say, geometry—scores on a good test of that area will go up. However, if you directly teach the small sample measured by a particular test—for example, memorization of the fact that vertical angles are equal—scores will increase, often dramatically, but mastery of geometry as a whole will not improve much, if at all. It is much as though a campaign tried to win an election by convincing the eight hundred polled people—and only those eight hundred people—to vote for their candidate.

–Koretz

Five Good Books on Teaching Math

The Liberal Arts Tradition by Jain and Clark

The first book on this list might not obviously be about teaching math, but in fact the authors teach advanced math at a small, private, Christian classical school in Florida. They have some of the best writing I’ve ever seen about the importance of mathematics in classical education.

Today the desire among math educators to cultivate “number sense” reflects this ancient desire to have deep reasoning in arithmetic.

–Clark and Jain

Make It Stick by Peter C. Brown and Henry L. Roediger III

Another book that isn’t obviously about mathematics, yet contains wonderful information about to structure your child’s math education. Make It Stick is a fantastic book just to learn how to learn better, but the idea of interleaved and varied practice is especially foreign to most US math curricula.

In math education, massing is embedded in the textbook: each chapter is dedicated to a particular kind of problem, which you study in class and then practice by working, say, twenty examples for homework before you move on. … When you have learned under conditions of massed or blocked repetition, you have had no practice on that critical sorting process. … For our learning to have practical value, we must be adept at discerning “What kind of problem is this?” so we can select and apply an appropriate solution.

Several studies have demonstrated the improved powers of discrimination to be gained through interleaved and varied practice.

pg 53; Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel

The Math Gene by Keith Devlin

In the US, we tend to think that either children are “mathy” or they’re not, and there’s not really much to be done about it. We’re shameless about saying, “I’m not really good at math” in a way we would never say, “I’m not good at reading.” Devlin wrote an entire book to argue against the idea that some people are just intuitively mathy, and it’s a good book.

Whatever it is that causes the interest, it is that interest in mathematics that constitutes the main difference between those who can do mathematics and those who claim to find it impossible.

–Devlin

A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart

This is actually an extended essay, but it’s quite powerful. Lockhart argues that the joy of mathematics should be given to all.

The saddest part of all this “reform” are the attempts to “make math interesting” and “relevant to kids’ lives.” You don’t need to make math interesting–it’s already more interesting than we can handle! And the glory of it is its complete irrelevance to our lives. That’s why it’s so fun!

pg. 8; Lockhart

The Number Sense by Stanislas Dehaene

Dehaene is a neuroscientist writing in his second language, and so this is a fairly dense piece of work, albeit written for the general public. However, if you can stick with it, he explains some of the most frustrating and key parts of teaching math. For example, his analogy for the times tables is amazing.

What would happen if you had to memorize an address book that looked like this:

Charlie David lives on George Avenue

Charlie George lives on Albert Zoe Avenue

George Ernie lives on Albert Bruno Avenue.

And a second one for professional addresses like this:

Charlie David works on Albert Bruno Avenue

Charlie George works on Bruno Albert Avenue

George Ernie works on Charlie Ernie Avenue

Learning these twisted lists would certainly be a nightmare. Yet they are nothing but addition and multiplication tables in disguise. … The six above addresses are thus equivalent to the additions 3 + 4 = 7, 3 + 7 = 10, and 7 + 5 = 12, and to the multiplications 3 x 4 = 12, 3 x 7 = 21, and 7 x 5 = 35.

–Dehaene

A Day in the Life 2019

What does a Friday look like at our house?

My mother was up earliest, at 5:45 am. She puttered a bit, saw my husband off to work, and then watched some Australian soap opera on Netflix before taking the children while I worked.

G had scheduled a sleepover on Friday night with a friend, so she woke up early to pack and get all her work done before we left the house. Early for G is before seven. She typically gets herself up, dressed, fed, and chills out by herself for an hour or two in the early morning quiet after her father leaves for work while her sister is still asleep.

Apparently she started with her pre-algebra first, since it was the toughest. 95% on that exam! She lucked out of assignments in her online classes, so she zoomed through her vocab quiz, Latin review, history video and written summary, literature read-aloud (she reads to my mother), and science reading and Q&A pretty much independently, all before 1pm. My mom checks that the day’s work is completed and grades things like math tests. I make daily schedules and do regular quality assurance checks.

E didn’t sleep well Thursday night, so she didn’t wake up until about 8:30. I took her downstairs and let her watch toy decorating videos on YouTube while I made breakfast for both of us. Then I enjoyed some quiet time with a book while E and I snuggled and my mother kept an eye on G.

E scooted over to my mom’s side of the house while I taught from 11 am to 1 pm. After rounding the children up, and making sure that G had her overnight bag, we drove the half-hour to the pediatrician’s office. I try to schedule out of the house things on Friday afternoons after my last class of the day because I know I’m fried by then! Mom enjoys those quiet afternoons home alone.

After the inevitable tears at the pediatrician’s office, I rewarded the girls with lunch out at our favorite fast-casual restaurant. While they debated on dessert, I finished up some paperwork for the 4-H club I lead. Afterward, I dropped G at her friend’s house, and picked up takeout for dinner (because, again, Friday!)

By the time we got home, my husband was home from work. We had family dinner, and then my husband and I worked on E with her phonics and math. Afterward, we had a quiet family night in. Those are my favorite evenings.

A Day In the Life

This is an old entry, from when I had a demanding toddler.

7:30 Will the baby go back to sleep? She’s quiet..

7:54 No.

8:06 Morning ablutions with a fussy toddler on my hip. Meanwhile, elder DD has gone into the living room to watch YouTube.

8:10 Checking email while snagging breakfast. One important student email I need to respond to is flagged for later. I grab 2 breakfast burritos out of the freezer and jam them in the microwave. Husband can drive through McD’s tomorrow because I’m almost out of this batch of breakfast burritos—mental note to make another batch this weekend. With the toddler still on my hip, I grab a soda off the back porch. It’s too warm to keep storing my soda on the back porch—mental note to bring it in. Sometime when the toddler isn’t screaming at me to come back inside. Her separation anxiety is fierce. Meanwhile, the older is still watching YouTube. I think about saying something, but don’t. The microwave beeps, and the toddler demands my breakfast.

8:15 trying to persuade the older child to eat breakfast is always a losing battle. Her gastroesophageal reflux tends to make her queasy in the morning. Nevertheless, I make her two pieces of cinnamon toast, and get her a glass of water for her Prilosec.

8:20 While DD’s toast cooks, I try to eat my breakfast and respond to email, but the toddler sits on my lap and eats all the sausage out of my burritos. DD is still watching YouTube.

8:25 The toast has been retrieved from the toaster and offered to the eldest child. Her Prilosec has been taken, anyway. I settle back in at my desk with the toddler, trying to finish answering my email.

8:37 where did the time go? The toddler is wandering around the living room, wreaking havoc. Eldest child is still watching YouTube. I tell her that we will do school in 10 minutes, and open up the tab for Facebook.

9:01 it’s a good thing eldest daughter wasn’t paying attention, because I wasn’t either. The toddler has curled up on my lap, on the Boppy, and is nursing peacefully. I decide not to disturb her.

9:07 So much for peaceful nursing.

9:15 having overcome all the vociferous objections to actually doing academic work, I wrangled the child to the dining room table. Once she is actually seated, she works quickly. We do math, poem memorization, composition, grammar, handwriting, history, and I decide to do Latin in the car, listening to the CD and repeating it.

10:20 I pick up the science book, and start reading it to her, but then realize that we don’t have enough time to finish it because we all have to get dressed and tidied before the sitter gets here. I finish the paragraph.

10:25 The girls’ room is a mess. No time to clean. Must find decent outfits for both. Of course younger child needs her diaper changed right now!

10:30 Strenuously objecting to the diaper change, younger daughter has run away half naked while I’m still not dressed for work. At least elder daughter is dressed, although she’s hungry, finally.

10:35 Younger daughter caught and dressed, bean burrito plucked out of the freezer and microwaving for elder daughter, I venture into my clean laundry pile. I need to buy some un-stained tops.

10:40 finally, we are all dressed. I grab a cucumber out of the refrigerator and quickly slice some up. Cucumber in a little glass bowl, tomato slices in a bowl, chopped cold chicken in a bowl, bean burrito cut up on a plate, and apple sauce poured into a bowl equals lunch for older daughter. Extra handful of Cheerios, a pouch with some applesauce, and some diced cucumber for younger daughter means lunch is pretty much done. I grab a protein bar and another soda, and frantically put away toys in the living room while I wait for the babysitter.

10:47 of course sitter is running late. I pay almost 25% of my take-home salary in babysitting fees, and I am lucky to get her.

10:50 I have deposited my screaming toddler in the arms of the college age babysitter, and harden my heart as I walk away. She will be fine. It is only two hours. I try not to think about her screaming as I walk downstairs.

10:52 I load my whiteboard, and prep for class. I transfer all of my attention to my students. They’re my sole concern for the next two hours. Compartmentalization is a skill, and I can exercise it.

12:52 Hopefully I have been entertaining enough, engaging enough, and had enough relevant expertise to keep up with these fiercely bright and curious students today. My noon section was particularly on the ball, and I just needed a light hand to steer the conversation. They created their own lightbulb moment. I love teaching.

12:53 Back to motherhood. All is silent upstairs.

12:55 I quietly write a check for the sitter. She transfers the sleeping toddler into my arms, and of course she wakes up. Her face is tear stained, and she grabs me, holding me tight. I settle down at my desk to nurse her, but she wiggles and twists and turns while she nurses. (Years later, I realize that this is a sign of her vicious GERD). Meanwhile, eldest had settled on the sofa with a book, but since her sister is awake, she decides to go back to Minecraft.

1:11 The toddler wants to go outside, but I need to check the discussion forums in my classes. She wanders over to the window and bangs on it, while I load up Blackboard.

1:46 Only 45 minutes before we need to load up in the car. Of course the toddler needs a fresh outfit. This one is smeared with the beans from her sister’s lunch.

2:06 I decide to load them up a bit early. It takes a half an hour to get anywhere anyway, and this way we will have enough time to run through McDonald’s for an afternoon snack. Elder daughter grabs her Kindle to read in the car.

2:33 The toddler is screaming loudly, when we drive through McDonald’s. Of course. I order an extra small french fry, in hopes that she’s just cranky because she’s hungry.

2:40 Having devoured the french fries, the toddler has fallen asleep. Unfortunately, I have to wake her up in 15 minutes to walk her sister in to therapy.

2:55 Everybody out of the car. I snuggle the cranky sleepy toddler in the mei tai so I can have my hands free while we walk in.

3:00 Big sister dropped off, we wait in the waiting room. I wonder how often they clean the toys, and make polite conversation with the clearly harassed mother of two. Hers look 3.5 and 2, if I had to guess. She’s got fabulous hair.

3:30 Big sister is finished, time to load everybody back into the car, so I can go home and make dinner. I belatedly remember Latin, but I can’t figure out how to pause the CD in the car, and they speak so fast, I’m not sure it’s useful.

4:00 Time for dinner. Too hot for the planned Salisbury steak, I decide to make spaghetti Carbonara. It’s not much lighter, but it’s quick. Plus, I have ham that needs to be eaten, and as expensive as that was, it’d be a shame to waste it.

4:07 Thank goodness DH arrived home. He takes cranky hungry toddler, while I chop ham, and eldest daughter complains about being bored.

4:27 Spaghetti is boiling, so I quickly write up the recipe as a possible submission to the faculty blog.

4:53 Dinner is on the table and so is the toddler. I call eldest daughter away from the computer, asking her to tell my mom that dinner is ready. She’d arrived home from work while I was cooking, but I’ve not yet talked to her today.

5:01 Why does eldest child not want to eat this?! She gobbled it down last week!

5:03 My mother asks me if there’s egg in the sauce. Of course there is. “Why are you letting her eat it?” Bad Mommy. I had forgotten that the allergist recommended the toddler avoid egg. sigh

5:45 Everyone has drifted away from the table, but I’m not clearing it. I need to check my email, and frankly, I’m tired. Dear Husband has gone outside with the girls, so I take a moment to call a potential Birth To Three client, review a specialty developmental assessment with my mother, balance the bank account, and return parent email.

6:37 I venture on the back porch, where Dear Husband and I have a tense discussion about the need to replace our 15-year-old car. The girls are filthy, and are going to need baths.

7:09 I vegetate on Facebook while Dear Husband runs a bath for the girls.

7:29 I commence operation Scrub The Children. This is a complex, multi-part operation with up to four different players, which can easily take an hour.

8:34 I decide I need a shower.

9:06 Time to nag eldest child to brush her teeth.

9:16 I try to quickly return a parent email, only to realize I’ve lost an important file. It takes me a good 25 minutes to find it, while Dear Husband wrangles the children into pajamas.

9:45 I attempt to nurse the toddler to sleep, but she’s discovered that Daddy is awake in the next room, reading science to her sister, and she wants no part of a boring, dark room with Mommy. Three tries are required before she finally falls asleep.

10:46 Dear Husband finally slips into bed with me, but we’re both so fried, we putter on electronic devices instead of talking.

11:30 I shut off my Kindle, as Allan Bloom is no longer making sense.

Reading Reconsidered In the Homeschool—Chapter 2

This chapter is about Common Core style Close Reading, which isn’t something taught in either Well-Trained Mind style classical education, or Charlotte Mason style classical education. This kind of literature analysis on steroids is quite possibly my least favorite activity on Earth, behind washing dishes.

Close Reading is the methodical breaking down of the language and structure of a complex passage to establish and analyze its meaning. Teaching students to do it requires layered reading and asked sequenced, text-dependent questions; and it should end whenever possible with mastery expressed through writing.

Reading Reconsidered

I think this chapter is worthwhile because this style of close reading is tested on major assessments, like the SAT. For example, when I reviewed a Pennsylvanian 4th grade summative assessment, and answered the Close Reading sample questions, I got them wrong because I used my background knowledge, instead of an incorrect answer that corresponded with questionable inferences from the text.

Assessments based on this style of reading are intentionally dumbing down reading comprehension by sticking to only what can be decoded from the “four corners of the text.”

Close reading is how the Common Core ELA standards handle students with poor reading skills, and in turn, makes texts incomprehensible even to the authors. As per Reading Reconsidered, “Close Reading is the tool that allows students to read text that is over their heads”, which begs the question of reading comprehension.

Ironically, the explicit assumption in Reading Reconsidered is that close reading gives students “the ability to wrestle with the most demanding texts, interpret them independently, and understand why and how they mean what they do.” Another explicit assumption is that Close Reading helps students become familiar with genre styles.

In Reading Reconsidered‘s version of Close Reading, the student should explain in writing what the text says and be able how to use the text to answer “text-dependent questions”; there is only one right answer, and it must be found within solely within the words on the page, using multiple reads of a paragraph length snippet of text over the course of an hour or so.

If there is anything better designed to suck the joy out of reading, I’m not sure what it is. Reading Reconsidered breaks Close Reading down into four common steps, “1) contiguous read, 2) initial writing to Check For Understanding, 3) reread with text-dependent questions, 4) final writing.”

What they call “Layered Reading,” is broken down into three types, which can be used independently or concurrently:

  • “Contiguous Read” — just keepin’ on truckin’ through the whole thing, often read aloud in the classroom with the occasional vocabulary word defined as they read
  • “line-by-line read” — just as dreadful as it sounds, answering multiple questions about a single sentence or line of poetry. “Who is they? Is this a good or a bad thing? Why didn’t the author mention _____? Why did the author choose that word?” Of course, even though the author isn’t there to gift you with their insight, and literature professors have been arguing about word choice for centuries, there is only one right answer, and it must only come from the text, not your knowledge of the author or the context in which the text is written, etc.
  • “leapfrog read” — this is skimming to find how the author treated key words or phrases, and then answering inferential questions–only using the text, and there is only one right answer. Reading Reconsidered suggests using this technique as early as second grade.
    • “Where is ___ first mentioned? What is it doing? Is this positive or negative? What is the object of ____? What is the result of ____? What will happen if ____ continues? What’s being described as ____? Give one literal and one figurative reason why the author would describe _____ that way.”
    • “Underline _____. The author chose ____ adjectives. How would the effect have been different if they’d chosen _____? What kinds of things are ____? What is the author implying? Why does the author say ____? What is the object of _____?”
    • “Under the phrase _____. Compare it to ______. The last time ____ was mentioned it was ____? Now we’re sure the author is comparing it to a ____. What is it doing? In your notes, briefly describe the role of ____.”

“Unless the conversation starts with a deep understanding of the specifics of what Shakespeare wrote rather than some generalized proximity of it, the discussion is not an exercise in reading. It is a substitute activity–a philosophical discussion about issues raised in a text…such discussions don’t generally teach students to read deeply.”

Reading Reconsidered

For classical homeschoolers, using literature to engage in the Great Conversation is the point rather than something to be avoided. Particularly for Well-Trained Mind style homeschoolers, reading or listening to “generalized proximity” versions of the text as youngsters allows for deeper reading of text specifics later. It’s arguable that Common Core style Close Reading puts the cart before the horse.

Paraphrase vs Summary vs Narration

Reading Reconsidered distinguishes between a paraphrase (“a restatement of the sentence in simpler and clarified terms that still capture all of the explicit meaning and as much of the connotation as possible” in the same tense, syntax, and POV) and a summary (“a statement about the text from 3rd person POV with simplified language focusing on relevant information.”) Most narrations are summaries, but Reading Reconsidered has a preference for paraphrases.

Text Dependent Questions (TDQs)

TDQs are divided into word or phrase level questions, sentence or line level questions, and paragraph or stanza level questions. All three types can either be questions to establish meaning, or questions to analyze meaning. Reading Reconsidered points out that instructors can switch back and forth between types and kinds of questions and zoom in and out from word choice to paragraph analysis. You’ll note that these are not the typical kinds of questions we use when talking about books we read as classical homeschoolers.

Establishing Meaning

First they offer three types of word or phrase level questions: referent questions (“What is ‘it’?”), denotation questions (“What are ___? What would have to be true for ____ to happen? What might that show about _____?”) and explanation questions (“What does ____ mean? How is it different from ____?”)

Next they offer four types of sentence-level questions: paraphrase questions, key line questions (“What does this sentence tell us about ___ and why is that important?”), reference questions (“Who is ___ talking about?”), and sentence structure questions (“Why does the author _____ at the beginning/end/middle of each sentence?”).

Finally, they offer four types of paragraph/stanza level questions: summary questions, delineation questions (“trace the elements of the argument” or “trace the sequence of events in the narrative”), and finite evidence questions (“Find all/multiple/# of pieces of evidence throughout the section.”)

Analyzing Meaning

First they offer five types of word or phrase level questions: word pattern questions (anaphora, etc), connotation questions (implied meaning based on associations and how this affects meaning or tone), figurative vs literal meaning (Not what, but why and how. “Why personification here? Why a simile comparing to X rather than Y?”), sensitivity analysis (Why this word and not that one?), missing word analyses (“Why wouldn’t the author mention ____?)

Next they offer four types of sentence-level questions: key line question (“What might it accomplish to express the idea with such subtlety? What other similar lines are in the book? Why would the author keep ____ hidden/explicit in this type of work?”), allusion questions (“What is the allusion? Why use it?”), figurative language questions (asks about the meaning of imagery or nonliteral language such as simile, metaphor, symbolism, analogy, etc), and pattern questions (ask about a pattern in structure, syntax, or sound and how that affects meaning).

Finally, they offer three types of paragraph/stanza level questions: paragraph function (“Look carefully at paragraph number __ and ___. How has the author shifted the use of ____ and the degree to which they are using ____? Why are they making the shift? How does this build from ____?”), dramatic irony (difference between their own knowledge and that of characters within the narrative), extended metaphor/allegory question (ask students to trace a metaphor across multiple lines of text).

Global Level Questions

Last, but not least, they offer “global-level” questions for use after Close Reading, to apply insights to a large section of text.

  • convention alignment analyses — compare and contrast to genre styles and how that creates meaning
  • intratextual motifs and discourse — analyze the connection between different parts of a text or how a motif shows up elsewhere in the text
  • intertextual discourse — analyze the explicit or implicit connections between a given text and other specific texts
  • ambiguity questions — analyze what is left unstated or unresolved
  • part-to-whole questions — what role this scene/chapter/excerpt plays in the context of the larger work

Writing About Reading is Not Optional

I can just hear all the classical homeschoolers taking a sharp, in-drawn breath. Yes, Reading Reconsidered insists that students not only write about literature, but also argue about it–but only teacher-approved arguments, of course.

One Ring to Rule Them All

That’s because Reading Reconsidered says that teachers should be “modeling how to ‘argue a line,’ tracing a theme, a motif, a conflict, or an image through the complexity of a text. Teachers are encouraged to be “de-emphasizing certain aspects of the text to facilitate” this process–AKA, ensuring that students write up the right answer “by analyzing specific details from the text” that the teacher has shown them.

Big Little Lessons

Noting that teachers will begin with the end in mind, Reading Reconsidered encourages teachers to march students through this joy-filled process every single day, even if only in 10-15 minute stints of prepared bits like epigraphs, or by accident when students take unplanned detours away from the approved line of argument. Teachers are encouraged to have students re-read bits three and four times, asking TDQs until they come up with the right answers.

I suspect that this is why I ended up reading a play a week during my college-level Shakespeare class, doggedly writing a weekly essay about the “play within a play” in every single week’s reading. And this would be why I don’t read “literature” anymore–only genre fiction and nonfiction.

In Sum

While most classical style homeschoolers will not be running their second-graders through this process–and possibly not even their high schoolers–I think it’s important that homeschoolers understand the concepts behind Common Core style Close Reading.

While college bound students will need to learn genre conventions, typical literature analysis techniques, and all the accompanying vocabulary, like motif and allegory, nowadays they’ll also need to be prepared to deal with the expectation that they are only to write about the approved text, using no outside information to inform their writing, making the correct argument they’re to discern from the way the question is asked. Most will not find this particularly onerous, but it is a hoop they need to learn to jump through.

Reading Reconsidered In the Homeschool—Chapter 1

This chapter is about text selection, something near and dear to the homeschool community.

The authors begin with “The Decline of the Canon.” First, let me say that as a fan of Susan Wise Bauer’s work, I subscribe to her idea that no list of the Great Books is canonical. I also am sympathetic to the idea that there are lesser-known works by authors who were not in positions of power that have been overlooked as possible candidates for inclusion.

After positing that there are “universal and fungible [reading] skills, applicable and applied to almost any text,” Lemov nods to the idea that “reading … depends heavily on knowledge.” So far, so good. Perfectly compatible with Bauer’s idea that:

a classical education follows a specific three-part pattern: the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of those facts and images, and finally equipped to express conclusions

reading has two parts: ongoing instruction in how to read and the actual reading of worthwhile books

The Well-Trained Mind

Next the authors run through what is essentially an argument for classical education without any of the key words. The choice of texts matters, student need cultural literacy, the point of education was the Great Conversation, universal education produces good citizens, a shout-out to the McGuffey Reader, etc–and then stop to emphasize that they’re not arguing for this, of course not, because old = bad.

They stop to discuss Dead White Males, YA fiction, and texts selected less by posited virtues and more by one’s inner child. Noting that the free-for-all text selection allows for more diverse perspectives and voices, but loses shared discourse, the authors point out that “intertextuality” (Adler’s “syntopical reading”) requires texts in common.

With a subtle nod to E.D. Hirsch, Jr., they make the point that Sayer’s “educational capital,” like Piketty’s, accrues to heirs, rather than wider society. Where Jessie Wise writes that “sooner or later, the capital gets used up,” the authors throw in a reference to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Finally, the authors recommend an “internal canon” determined locally, whereas Well-Trained Mind style classical educators tend to rely literature linked to history studies. One reads “classics” because they’re the literature of the time period. A nonsectarian approach to history will necessarily result in a more diverse set of literature choices.

Next, the authors address Lexile scores and leveled texts. Note that there is no quality research for leveled texts. While we all know there is more to a text than its Lexile score (Night by Elie Wiesel is a perfect example), the authors make the excellent point that:

[a well-chosen book] builds students’ knowledge base about books and storytelling in a way that will be useful to them in understanding how texts work, throughout a lifetime of reading

Susan Wise Bauer and the authors agree that books should not be read in snippets–whole books are best. Then, the authors point out five distinct difficulties to overcome when tasking students with “complex texts”–what Sayers would refer to as not “twaddle.”

  • archaic syntax and vocabulary–remedy by carefully scaling up in difficulty. “Pre-complex texts” are listed, with a suggestion to read them out loud, heartwarming to any classical educator
  • nonlinear time sequences, including “unclear timing of an event, shifts in fixity of time, layers of memory, shifts in rate of time elapsing, recurrence of events”–remedy with suggested texts for introducing nonlinear time sequence
  • complexity of narrator, including the idea that the narrator could by lying or hallucinating–remedy with suggested texts for introducing complex voice
  • complexity of story (plot and symbolism)–remedy with intentionally exposing students to such a book.
  • resistant text–remedy with exposure to other difficulties, poetry, and close reading
  • nonfiction–see chapter 3

Where the authors lean on long-term, non-obvious benefits, Bauer quotes Steele.

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
-Richard Steele, The Tatler

The fourth part of the chapter points out the scarcity of time to read, not unlike the meme about 960 Sundays from birth to age 18. This is something that I think is less key to classical homeschoolers, who have chosen to have more time to devote to reading good books. Most classical homeschoolers I know are fans of reading deeply and widely.

Like many homeschoolers, the authors say that children can handle reading something that they don’t know if they’ll like, that it’s an advantage to be able to read and discuss books, and that some books matter more than others.

The next bit might as well be an ad for the Well-Trained Mind, in that children learn by reading, especially good historical fiction about unfamiliar cultures and settings. One thing that children can learn is the procession of ideas through the ages, and how different write reference them.

The last section is about how to select texts. This bit is mostly irrelevant to homeschoolers, as it assumes a school wide setting.

Reading Reconsidered in the Homeschool — Intro

Reading Reconsidered is not aimed at homeschoolers, but I think it contains some useful information that classical homeschoolers might want to consider. First, an introduction to who and what this book is about.

Reading Reconsidered’s subtitle is “A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction.” Those of you who wince at the word “rigorous” might remember the Common Core wars and make no mistake, Lemov is all in on the Common Core.

In fact, Lemov got his Edu-Professional-Consultant start under the NCLB regime, called in to turn around schools unable to meet the NCLB standardized testing requirements. In response to the unpredictable quality of the average classroom teacher, he made a virtue of Taylorization in the classroom, complete with video monitoring. While it’s true that factories are more efficient since Taylor and his stopwatch, applying those values to the classroom understandably had serious push back, including accusations of racist practices.

Lemov went on to lead the Uncommon Schools charter network in the “no excuses” style. In fact, all of the authors of this book (Lemov, Driggs, and Woolway) are currently affiliated with Uncommon Schools. No Excuses Schools have been a flashpoint for criticism on many fronts.

relentlessly penalizing students who commit minor infractions: resting a head on a desk, chewing gum, talking during the silent march from class to class (Chalkbeat),

students in third grade and above wetting themselves during practice tests (NY Times),

but fewer than a third of its high school graduates were earning college degrees on time (NY Times)

[and parents said] “I wouldn’t put my dog in that school,” (Jacobin)

Very bluntly, all three of these college-educated, white, education professionals want to send poor (83% low-income), “urban” (94% Black or Hispanic) children to college. Reading Reconsidered is much like Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion in that it’s entirely teacher focused–it’s all about what the teacher should do when teaching reading.

The assumption in this book is that children will attend college, and the overarching goal is to prepare children to succeed at that endeavor

Classical educators will find much that is familiar in this book, and in fact on the second page the authors nod to home educated guiding lights of the 19th century. Immediately rejecting “let them read on their own and hope for the best,” they argue for “the diligent study of reading” through, you guessed it, the Taylorization of teaching reading.

Significant goals overlap with classical education:

The authors point out that college level reading is more difficult because it require reading dense, technical, primary sources and classic literature. Of course, those who classically educate their children already appreciate the value of classic literature and primary sources.

“The old books lay a foundation for all later learning and life.” —David Hicks

Reading Reconsidered spends a great deal of time on “close reading,” which is possibly the academic skill I most despise, and which I will discuss more thoroughly later. However, it’s worth noting that the Well-Trained Mind Academy offers a study skills class that includes close reading.

Later post in this series will discuss Reading Reconsidered chapter by chapter, and discuss its applicability (or not) to classical homeschooling.