Taking the Road Less Traveled in High School

 This post is part of a link-up for the Homeschool High School Carnival, hosted the first Monday of September by Erin at Seven Little Australians and Counting.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

 Robert Frost

The Road Behind

Twelve years ago, I was standing in a preschool classroom, bent over a long, shiny formica table, helping a little girl count ants on a log.  They weren’t real ants, of course; it was a coloring page, and she was supposed to color it in a particular way, the same way all the other 3, 4, and 5 year olds in the room were supposed to color it, so that it could be hung up on a rope by clothespins for parents to admire.  My own child did not want to count ants on a log, or paint at the painting center, or write on little slips of paper at the writing center, or glue cotton balls to a toilet paper tube, or do anything, really, except play at the sand and water table.  The teacher and her aide kept running in and out of the classroom, leaving me, the parent helper, alone with sixteen preschoolers (and their ants) for long stretches of time.  It was a long four hours, and at the end of it, both my son and I probably wore equally miserable expressions on our faces.  We went home, and we never went back.

Twelve years ago, you also would have seen me standing in the library stacks scanning the homeschooling shelf as quickly as I could, before my four year old son and my toddler daughter decided that a game of library tag would be a good idea.  One title, framed in bright orange, immediately stood out: Mary Griffith’s The Unschooling Handbook .  I had never heard the word unschooling before, but it sounded interesting. The subtitle, How to Use the Whole World as Your Child’s Classroom, made my heart leap.  Yes, yes!  I thought.  That’s exactly what I want for my kids! I grabbed the book and my kids and we headed for the circulation desk, having narrowly avoided that game of tag.  

Now flash forward nine years.  I’m sitting against a set of stacked wooden bleachers on the blue tile deck of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.  The kids who used to play library tag are now learning the breast stroke.  That four year old who was miserable in preschool has just turned thirteen.  I can see high school looming on the horizon like a mountain we are fast approaching, and I have been reading as many guidebooks to that mountain as I can lay my hands on.  Mostly the guidebooks talk about the importance of planning — how to divide up courses, what courses to do each year, what colleges want to see out of homeschoolers and how to make sure your homeschooler becomes that homeschooler.  At the moment, while I sneak peeks at my thirteen year old and my ten year old laboring the water, I am following that advice.  I have my black moleskine journal with me, and I am scribbling in it ferociously.  Before the swim lesson is done, I have mapped out the next five years for my child.  I stop and stare at my notes for a while, then back out at my son, who is doggedly pursuing the breast stroke, even though swimming is hard for him, because he wants to pass the Boy Scout Swimmer Test.  I close my journal, the lesson ends, the kids dress, and we walk out into the knife-edge cold of an upstate New York winter morning.  I put the notes away when we get home, and go on to other pages.  I don’t really look back at my master plan.

The Present Road

So where are we now?  The topic for this first Homeschool High School Carnival is “The Wide View”:

The Wide View….  How does your family’s ‘big picture’/goals/educational philosophy affect/guide your planning and translate into what your highschoolers do on a daily/weekly basis?  Do you generalise or specialise?

In order to see our family’s “big picture” for high school, I think you first have to have a glimpse of where we’ve been.  The traditional, top-down textbook approach sings its siren song even more strongly for high school than it does for other years, but so far we’ve been able to resist it.  It hasn’t been easy sometimes.  I worry about gaps, about whether doing things “otherwise” is just me stubbornly clinging to a hopeless ideal, about whether I’m going to ruin my son’s chances in life by allowing him to read classic science fiction and study astrobiology rather than signing him up for an IEW co-op class and handing him an Apologia biology text.  And it isn’t that either of those options are necessarily bad for the other homeschoolers who use them. It’s just that they don’t fit us.

To be honest, my heart still leaps at the thought of using the whole world as my child’s classroom, and in fact, I do believe that it is still our ideal… although now the ideal is tempered by the presence of five more children and twelve years of experience.  The philosophy we’ve hashed out along the way — often by tripping over roots and taking wrong turns and occasionally twisting an ankle in an unseen hole — is actually not so different than the educational philosophy with which we started out:

We believe that God has a plan for each child, and we want each of our children to grow into the person that God means for him (or her) to be.  To this end, we believe in giving our kids the necessary academic skills to be able to go to college if desired (or not), but also the freedom necessary for them to develop their own personal talents and interests.  And in the end, we believe that relationships — with God, with family, with others — matter so much more than whether or not a child can do algebra.

We have also always had two general goals for our children’s education:

1. For them to love learning, and not to separate life into “learning” vs “everything else”

and

2. For them to be independent learners — not just the kind of kids who could follow a syllabus on their own, but to become autodidacts.

Taken together along with our children’s personalities and special learning needs (and we do have some “special needs” around here), this means that a minimum of their daily work is “required” and most of it is chosen.  This is an easy way to sum it up, but I don’t think it really tells the whole story.   

The problem I had with mapping out all the years from grades 8-12 was that my children, from the very beginning, have had a lot of input into what they learn and the resources they use on a daily basis.  Over the years we’ve discovered that a radical unschooling approach is not what’s best for my oldest, who sometimes needs a little extra prodding and structure to discover that he actually likes a subject or an activity.  But while I may put in a heavy push for an academic area, or even tell my kids that it’s non-negotiable, I always want to support their opinions on the best resource or method to use, and we have done things this way for a very long time.

A good example of this process is our experience with Latin.  Gareth was about ten years old when I first decided to introduce the kids to Latin. This was a top-down decision.  The kids were not asking to learn Latin.  We began with Prima Latina, but we did it orally with very little writing involved.  When we moved on to Latina Christiana I and began chants of conjugations and declensions, Gareth got frustrated.  He couldn’t remember the conjugations, and he didn’t understand what they were for.  I made him a chart to refer to while we did chants, but I didn’t let him quit.

Now, at the age of 15, he wants to be a linguist.  He spends countless hours researching obscure languages online, and he is trying to learn three difficult languages (Latin, Attic Greek, and Japanese) at the same time.  He does not grumble about Latin, and it has become something he himself has decided is important to him.  

And on the other hand, I let him drop the study of English grammar.  He’s learned far more grammar through his study of languages anyway, and he hated most of the texts.  I just stick my fingers in my ears so I can’t hear anyone telling me we ought to do otherwise, and we go on about our day.

The point is that by the time my son reached his teens, our educational practices had indeed turned out an independent learner who loved to learn and was not willing to follow someone else’s plan without a reason of his own.  “Getting into college” is not a good enough reason, although college is in his sights.  Learning, to my children, must be meaningful, or else why would you do it in the first place? On the one hand, this attitude makes me proud.  They are not working just for a grade or to be done and go out with their friends.  On the other hand, sometimes I just wish I could write something like “English 9″ down on the transcript and then next year move on to “English 10″, instead of having big messy drafts on my computer called “Reading and Writing Classic Science Fiction” that sprawl over years and in some cases defy classification.

Anyway, all this is to say that planning out and carrying out high school at our house is a highly collaborative process.  During the spring and summer, I’ll usually ask my kids — teens, elementary-aged, and preschoolers — if there’s anything they really want to learn about in the coming year.  For my high schooler, we also talk about graduation requirements and ways that he might meet them.  After we determine subjects or skills, I ask what resources he might want to use to study them — text, booklist, class, tutor, etc. — and then I start hunting them down.  

Once we have some resources lined up (usually this means a nice big stack of real books), then I think about how I can help him keep on track throughout the year.  We have a problem in this house with time and staying organized.  There are so many things we want to do in a day, a week, a month, or a year — like learning three languages — that sometimes things get dropped unintentionally as we focus on something else.  In the past I have started out the year with more detailed lesson plans and gotten frustrated when they weren’t followed.  This year Gareth and I decided that a simple chart might work best.

    

The chart worked pretty well over the summer.  He had fallen behind in Latin last year because we played around with courses a little, some of which did not work, so he needed to catch up over the summer in order to start the Memoria Press Latin II class in September with Katydid.  (Our summer term ran from the week after the Fourth of July to Labor Day Weekend, and he did indeed catch up in Latin.) We didn’t get to everything — lab day was a bust, for instance — so I’ll take that into consideration when I type up the new chart for next term.
As far as the instruction to “WRITE SOMETHING” goes… mostly he works on his novel, but at the end of every term I have been borrowing a page from Charlotte Mason and doing “exams”.  These “exams” are not very exam-like. The kids don’t see them as tests; instead they are opportunities for them to synthesize and narrate the knowledge they’ve collected during the term.  I like to make them enjoyable, so many of the options I offer are creative:

 I don’t always know what he’s reading or how much work he gets done in a day or a week. (This is what happens when independent learners get older and much of their learning happens at 11 PM.) A lot of his research is totally independent of me.  When I write the exam questions, I always ask him if what I think he’s read or learned in the past several weeks is on target. (Question #2 is all about his independent research, for example.)  It usually is, but sometimes I’m at a complete loss.  For instance, most of the science reading Gareth has been doing lately has not been in a book, but in various magazines.  I know the magazines, but I’m not sure what articles he’s read from them.  So the science question I included was simply to summarize some of his science reading.

Question #1 also deserves mentioning because it’s my attempt at making some of his reading “respectable”.  He reads an awful lot of fantasy novels, and some of them (not all of them) are a lot like candy.  You eat them fast, they taste good, but they don’t really fill you up in the end.  On the other hand, he likes to write fantasy, and it’s certainly useful to read widely in your field as a writer.  Anyway, I figure if he’s writing essays about his reading, we can include it as part of an English credit.  And, indeed, he did give me a very funny piece in response to Question #1, which also demonstrated a solid understanding of what makes a good story.   

The Road Ahead

Now you know our past and present.  But where are we headed?  Well, I don’t know the details, but I’m sure the path will be interesting.  It will probably include community college or university classes and perhaps an online AP class or two.  It will certainly include many, many more living books.  With Gareth’s interests, college is almost a certainty.  Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night worrying that he’s not going to get enough lab hours in for his sciences to count as lab sciences, but mostly I have become a lot more comfortable with taking the road less traveled, even through high school.  My faith is bolstered when I hear stories from other moms,

Companions on the Road?

Just because the road is less traveled does not mean we’re hacking our way through the jungle with machetes.  Here are some of the traveling companions I’ve discovered to help our way:

Books

Hard Times in Paradise(The classic homeschooling/homesteading memoir of the Colfax family, which includes the story of their son Grant, and his acceptance to Harvard.)

From Homeschool to College and Work: Turning Your Homeschooled Experiences into College and Job Portfolios (This is a book about making transcripts for unschoolers and other people whose learning doesn’t fit into neat boxes.  I’ve also found it helpful as a window into how unschooling high school really works.)
Homeschooling Our Children Unschooling Ourselves (Another book by Alison McKee, which includes a memoir of her son’s teen years.)
I have also spent a long time studying Rebecca Rupp’s journal entries for her teenage children in The Complete Home Learning Source Bookand Getting Started on Home Learning: How and Why to Teach Your Kids at Home.  
Blogs and other Internet Sources
For sample high school lesson plans and booklists, see Jen’s Wildflowers and Marbles: The Paper Stuff
For helpful Charlotte Mason-style high school posts, see Harmony Art Mom.
For beautiful posts about learning with teens in a relaxed fashion, see this list of posts from My Summer Notebook.

To tackle high school science without a textbook, see this thread from 4real learning.  I started it a few years ago when I was hashing out many of these issues, and it was so helpful to talk to similarly minded moms.

For more on Charlotte Mason style exams, see this 4real thread.   It isn’t specifically about end of term exams for teenagers, but it does contain a nice collection of quotes from Charlotte Mason (thanks to Jen) and links to some other examples, and is a good place to start if you think you might want to introduce this practice in your home. 

 

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Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    I loved reading about your beginning and the winding path to now. We learn as we go. Kids change, we have to change also. Thank you for sharing with us!

  2. “We believe that God has a plan for each child, and we want each of our children to grow into the person that God means for him (or her) to be. To this end, we believe in giving our kids the necessary academic skills to be able to go to college if desired (or not), but also the freedom necessary for them to develop their own personal talents and interests. And in the end, we believe that relationships — with God, with family, with others — matter so much more than whether or not a child can do algebra.”

    Angela
    I LOVE this paragraph! Actually I could cut and paste half a dozen other paragraphs that I love! Learning is valued in your home, I really enjoyed your post:) Thanks for joining in the Carnival:)

  3. Such a great post Angela, I feel like we’ve been in this together for such a long time and it’s so great to see how things are working for you and your children as you endeavor to go at it for the highschool years!! Thanks for the links too, always appreciate looking at other perscpectives for building transcripts :) Have a great next term and happy highschool!! Love Meredith

  4. Your post is reassuring to me. I am so glad I found it. Sometimes it can be tough to find kindred high school homeschoolers, especially those that lean toward independent learning.

    My daughter is in 10th grade, but she is not quite on level just yet. She has some learning challenges. We do what I like to call semi-eclectic unschooling. We are definitely not radical unschoolers, at least not at this point.

    The hardest thing for me is to relax and not worry so much about if she is getting everything. :)

    I recently found the LetsHomeschoolHighschool.com community for parents and kids who homeschool high school. They have some pretty good resources. I am still finding my way around it, but I have already learned quite a bit. I still have a long way to go down this high school road, so wish me luck.

    Joyfully,
    Jackie

  5. Thank you for posting such inspiring words. This is my 1st year homeschooling and atm I am struggling with ‘covering’ all the bases with my teens. I also have felt fearful of the same issues you have talked about, its comforting to see that I’m not alone :) Cheers Sue

  6. I remember reading your old blog years ago and thinking about how much I agreed with it! Then, I largely stepped away from 4real and blogs for years, trying to figure out what our life should look like. We have fallen very comfortably into an freedom within limits independent learning approach for my boys, now 5ht and 6th grade. I decided to look for some information as to just how much freedom and just how many limits I should impose. I came upon your new blog and I love this post. Susan’s p.o.v from High Desert Home and My Summer Notebook has always resonated with me but it was lacking the specifics. You really have a great way of illuminating things. Seeing how others are making this work is very helpful. Thank you!

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  8. Just as good this time around Angela!! Kiss that sweet baby :) You are so blessed!

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