Home education as a radical act

You* have the right to educate your own children.

Did you realize that?

It can be a source of paralyzing terror to even the most highly educated modern American, but teaching one’s children at home is the right and privilege of every parent.

I wouldn’t recommend availing oneself of this right, however, unless one feels called to the challenge. Teaching your children is a challenge. Let no blog or expert tell you otherwise! But, if you undertake this task, it may be the most important thing you ever do. If your child is doing fine, s/he might do even better in a personalized mix of classes designed à la carte. If your child is failing within the system, you may not have a better option than the radical one to educate your child at home.

radical adjective rad·i·cal \ˈra-di-kəl\

a :  very different from the usual or traditional :  extreme

b :  favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions

c :  associated with political views, practices, and policies of extreme change

d :  advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs the radical right

I’m not a zealot on the subject of home education. I have two kids, one enrolled in school, and one who learns at home. Both of my children attended preschool and kindergarten. We never sought to keep them away from other people; we aren’t hiding at home to avoid the realities of the diverse and populous world.

My son learns at home because it works for him. He is learning, and, unlike when he left school, he is thriving. He is an introvert, so his social needs are easily met with his group classes and private meet-ups outside of typical school hours. He is also a logical thinker, and a practical sort. He realized in early elementary school that it was quicker and more efficient to get schoolwork done without the distraction of other kids. He would rather spend time with his peers when he’s free to interact with them, getting his academic work done in privacy and peace.

Real life and the professional world allow for this kind of personalization in a way that modern institutionalized schooling does not. Some jobs involve constant contact and communication (sales); some jobs demand a tolerance for solitude (working on a oil rig, say, or in a fire lookout tower); the vast majority of jobs fall somewhere in between.

There’s nothing novel about the fact that human beings are individuals with unique characteristics and strengths. The strange conceit is the Industrial Age school that insists every square peg insert itself into its identical round hole; if the peg doesn’t fit, it is the peg that has failed. The hole bears no responsibility for its failure to be round!

People who believe schools, as they are today, are the only way to educate children would do well to note that the common institutional school is at most a few hundred years old. Human beings were finding ways to educate children, including providing formal academic instruction, for thousands of years before that. This is a beautiful illustration of Maslow’s hammer: every problem looks like a nail when your only tool is a hammer.

Emphatically, and with gusto, let me state that I believe in education, and a rigorous, fairly traditional education at that. The standards my kids are expected to meet before we set them free into adulthood include:

  • mastery of written and verbal communication in their native tongue,
  • mathematics sufficient to succeed as 21st century professionals,
  • ability to communicate in at least one foreign language,
  • competence with a musical instrument,
  • knowledge of history and human accomplishments,
  • knowledge of and practical experience with science,
  • study of philosophy and its application to logical/critical thinking,
  • proficient use of and ability to program computers,
  • and physical health and self-care.

We study year-round, and we consistently exceed the hours of instruction mandated by our state, but this doesn’t define our success as home scholars/educators. We are successful because we are giving this child the support he needs to maximize his own potential, academically and personally.

My child learns, for the most part, because he’s excited and motivated to do so. His success is his own. While we, as parents, asserted our authority to define the required goals to be worked toward if he wants to continue learning at home, how he reaches these goals is a process in which the child is an equal participant.

Evaluations, tests, and school structures are mere tools to be employed toward the real goal: the education of our children. Every discussion should bear this in mind; every policy should be crafted to serve the actual needs of our children. It’s shocking how rare this is in practice.

If your child isn’t learning—if s/he isn’t receiving the education s/he needs—consider undertaking to provide it yourself, and be willing to work outside the status quo until you accomplish what your child needs. Systemic failure to endow children with the tools they need to be successful adults and citizens is a threat to the fabric of our republic and the health of the individual.

Have you personally had to address this threat? How are you meeting your child’s educational needs? Have you had to take radical steps to meet them?

*Americans

 

Income tax form complexity as a tool of economic oppression

When income tax forms are challenging for even highly educated people to complete

and

average Americans are not provided excellent education in personal finance or mathematics

the result is

taxation without representation.

I thought we clarified the American position on that at the Second Continental Congress in July of 1776.

Financial education is a vital issue of class and privilege.

A person without a sound understanding of his/her own finances will always be more vulnerable to the vagaries of economics, and recent history shows no effort on the part of the government, which is fueled by tax income, to level the playing field for those who can’t afford teams of accountants and lawyers.

In my public high school, we were taught how to fill out the income tax form 1040EZ in a mandatory class called Personal Finance. (That waste of academic time also included lessons on how to fill out a McDonald’s job application and how to fill out a personal check, demonstrating just how low the bar was set for students’ financial education.) 1040EZ is the simplest possible tax form one can use, however, and presumably requires the least instruction to master. And, according to the latest IRS tax statistics, only 16% of Americans filed using the 1040EZ income tax form in 2014. Its use is too restrictive for the average American, and, worse yet, some people might choose it because it is less daunting to complete, thus losing out on deductions that would return their own excess tax payments back to their own pockets.

It takes me about two days to complete our household taxes, not including time spent organizing paperwork early in the year. For at least a decade, each year there have been ambiguous points of procedure requiring extra research and some stress as I wonder if I “got it right” or might face a tax audit or penalty. If a college graduate with a degree in math* struggles to do her taxes, average Americans must also be struggling. They probably struggle more.

Paying personal income tax is mandatory, which makes it unreasonable to make them too complex to be completed without professional help. It is incumbent upon the federal government to make the process of completing an average income tax filing possible by an average American citizen. Anything else is un-American.

We could attempt to increase the numeracy and financial literacy of our citizenry. As appealing as that is, the fact that we are struggling to achieve universal mastery of basic skills like reading and simple mathematical computation makes me question the likelihood that this is practical.

The more reasonable solution is to reduce the complexity of the tax code with which all Americans must comply. Only political will prevents taking this step. I suspect that the ideal is not as minimal as Ross Perot’s flat tax proposal of the early 1990’s, but I’m positive it is less convoluted than the current U.S. Tax Code with 51 Titles (sections) and thousands of pages.

Our Republic depends absolutely on an involved and educated citizenry to self-govern. Comprehensible policies are the least we should expect from our government agencies.

The filing deadline to submit 2016 tax returns is Tuesday, April 18, 2017. Are you ready to file?

*Mathematical & Physical Sciences with a concentration in Computer Science, admittedly not including specific instruction in accounting

Learning German: foreign language tools for adults

As a child, I might have been offended at the very idea: I’m studying to prepare for summer camp? See my post here about attending German language immersion camp with the kids in a couple of months.

But who could have imagined an adult attending summer camp at all? I like to think my younger self would be excited at the opportunity to travel to a “foreign land,” even if it’s only as foreign as Bemidji, MN.

Here are the tools I’m using right now to brush up on my German before camp. I find that mixing and matching different products has a multiplying effect on my progress, both by keeping up my interest and by coming at the same vocabulary from a different angle.

  • At every glance, I’m bombarded with FlashSticks® German Flash Cards for Beginners, conveniently printed on Post-it® notes for the speediest possible deployment all over the house. I might have learned more by making my own tags, but I also might have stopped after far fewer terms when I got tired of “arts and crafts” time.

  • A retired GE Aerospace manager’s re-thinking of the entire “language education” genre called The Little German Notebook: a breakthrough in early speaking (Charles Merlin Long) suggests a radically different approach to language acquisition that I find fascinating. If nothing else, thinking about the structure of the language in a new way makes studying its lists of vocabulary somewhat more novel. Analytical types studying German should definitely give this book at least a quick look.

  • Living Language‘s all audio set, Starting out in German, is what I’m using on the go in the car. None of it has been new vocabulary yet, but it’s tuning my ear back to the language and has clear, crisp dialogue compared to some. I like the Pimsleur audio series, too, and have used both German I and French I, but this is my first time through the Living Language set, so the content feels fresher.

  • Finally, I’m using Visual Education Think German I flash cards when I have a few down time to flip cards as well as listen. The audio quality on the included CDs is abysmal, however. It sounds like it was dubbed off the old cassettes, and maybe in a wind tunnel…

    Book cover Visual Ed Think German I

    You still get a cassette as well as CDs with Visual Ed’s Think German I

Have you had success with any particular tools for self-studying a foreign language?

When a parent who doesn’t speak German takes the kids to camp at Waldsee family week

I’m sure there are no dummies at Waldsee*, but I can guarantee you I felt like one upon arrival at German family week. Showing up at language immersion camp for the first time is no joke!

„Ich habe vor 20 Jahren deutsch gelernt“

More than twenty years ago, I took one academic year of German in college. I was hardly showing up without a clue, but neither am I a fluent speaker of Deutsch. Even straight out of an A grade in German 102, I wouldn’t have been ready for this. For a few minutes, it feels like running into an intellectual brick wall.

Then again, Waldsee is a celebration of one’s potential to learn a language as much as it is a shrine to language at its most pristine. These camps exist because students want to learn, and people want to communicate with each other.

„Wir sprechen jetzt Deutsch und… we’re going to like it!

The most challenging part of a six day immersion program in a language I’d merely dabbled with decades before was day one, hours one to three. Walking up to the registration table to present our camp “passports“ and check in brought me up short. I’m a smart cookie, but I felt like an idiot. What was anyone talking about? Exactly how far was I going to be carrying my enormous bag full of bedding and bug spray? Why was I here with these fiendish Teutophiles and how could I be expected to parent under these conditions?

By the time we made it to our bunkhouse, we’d carried our overstuffed suitcase up the wrong steps, finally found the right door, then the right floor, but I’d angry-whisper-yelled at my poor child more than once long before the bags were dumped on the bed. If you’d asked my opinion in that first hour, I’d have told a very different story about Waldsee in particular and language immersion in general than the one I’ll give you now. There might have been colorful language, in English, but I kept it under my breath so as not to spoil the immersion environment for others.

A lot of people wonder how much they could possibly learn in one week (six days, really) at Concordia Language Village’s family week, especially if the child is learning a language the parent never studied. Parents who hear about our trip to Waldsee are usually fascinated, but clearly hesitant to imagine themselves “back in school” learning a foreign language of all things.

Here’s my take for the parent who’s eager for their child to learn (or the parent of the eager child desperate to attend camp, but reluctant to go without parental support.)

Even if you don’t know one word of the target language, the staff will get you through the week and your kids will learn a lot. You will also have fun! If you are happy to be there, the experience will be joyful, regardless of German learned.

How much you actually learn is probably dependent upon your facility for languages (do you learn them easily?), the amount of effort you care to put in, and maybe the amount of parenting your own situation requires. If you bring a toddler or all six of your kids, you might nap more and study less! Either way, you can have a good time with your family and rest assured you are contributing to your child’s education. They will learn more—and more easily—than you do. You don’t have to know anything about your target language to make CLV family week worthwhile.

If you know you are heading to Waldsee, though, you will probably enjoy it a lot more if you take a stab at some self-study materials before camp. There are free language learning apps like Duolingo, free language learning software programs like Mango available from most public libraries, and lots of great recorded options like Pimsleur and Living Language to listen to in your car. (Both of these audio CD systems were also free from my local library.) Most of us won’t achieve fluency with these study aids, but even a brief grounding in the target language should reduce the shock and awe stage of immersion camp.

My experience, with modest background in German, a reasonably good ear for languages, and some preparation in the weeks before camp can best be expressed thusly:

We left camp, rode the bus to Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport, and embarrassed ourselves for the next several hours by continually addressing befuddled airport workers in German.

The effect lasted about a week in our home. Both of us were defaulting to beginning sentences in German, in spite of our relatively low level of speaking ability. From my perspective, that’s a learning success, for my child, and for the lifelong learner in me.

*Concordia Language Village (CLV) foreign language immersion summer camp for German in Bemidji, MN

Children’s books that made me who I am

Many of us read frequently, seemingly constantly, in childhood. Assuming there were lots of re-reads, and an average of finishing a few books a week for the decade between literacy and the teenage years, let’s call that about 1500 books read.

10 years x 52 weeks/year = 520 weeks

3 books/week x 520 weeks = 1560 books

The math is there for those of us who automatically calculate the numbers every time we read a blog post or news story anyway…

So we read a couple thousand books in childhood, but I think we all know a secret:

Not every book mattered.

How many books are there from your childhood that still sneak out and surprise you on occasion? There are those we couldn’t bear to let our own kids miss out on, and others we swoon to imagine them reading. (Or maybe only degenerates, or prudes, like me read stuff at that age that still brings up a blush?)

I still find myself caught up short in the middle of my day by distinct memories of scenes from books I otherwise can’t recall. There was a book with catfish crossing a street, but that’s all I remember…

Little House on the Prairie

I don’t believe I would be the woman I am today if it weren’t for some books. The Little House on the Prairie series comes immediately to mind. I know I read it over 50 times, and once re-read the entire series (minus the upsetting locust chapters) on one winter snow day.

1984

I think 1984 is the book that took my innocence. You’ll find that listed on my all time favorites book list, too, but it’s a bittersweet favorite. It kindled my dark fascination with dystopian fiction, and perhaps colored my worldview more than it should have.

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies was the novel that made me realize a great book was literally a great book, not a teacher’s great excuse to annoy kids.

The Melendy family books, beginning with The Saturdays

The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright (of the Melendy family series) is one I’m joyfully sharing with DS2 right now.

Picture books

My mother tells me that my first favorite book was Whose Mouse Are You? (Kraus) I remember Corduroy (Freeman) and The Snowy Day (Keats) from those early years, too.

There must have been early readers in my youth, but none of them left an imprint.

My grade school memories of reading include a sense of outrage at the red-taped-line between the lower two shelves (for first and second graders) and the better range of books above. I discovered, and adored, the “real” Mary Poppins (Travers) books, The Story of Doctor Dolittle (Lofting), and James and the Giant Peach (Dahl). I remember devouring every available reference book about holidays and celebrations in other countries and the one Spanish language book on my elementary school library’s shelf.

By upper elementary, I’d moved on to Agatha Christie and the selection of Reader’s Digest Classics my parents had on hand, in part just to provide the bulk of reading matter I required, but also due to a fascination I still have with British drawing room culture and The World as it Was (Before the War(s)?)

Somehow, I’ve ended up listing all the classics on every list, but perhaps there is a reason they are so popular. I can remember titles for a few non-classic titles:

The Girl with Silver Eyes (Roberts)

Key to the Treasure (Parish)

Behind the Attic Wall (Cassidy)

Are these great books? I couldn’t say. They still stand out, thirty years later, as memorable books, and there’s something to be said for that.

3 top tips to consider before attending Waldsee family week at Concordia Language Villages

My top three concerns before our first trip to Waldsee, and some advice for new family Villagers

Two years ago, I registered DS1 and myself for family week at Waldsee, the German language immersion camp at Concordia Language Villages in Bemidji, MN. For those who’ve never heard of it, CLV is a language-learning program put on by Concordia College. It is a highly regarded program, and there are few foreign language immersion options like it in the United States. They offer summer camps for kids in fifteen different languages and have done so in some form or another since 1961. Family week is one of the year-round additions to the program that allows adults to participate with their kids in this effective way of studying a foreign language.

Though I scoured the Internet in the spring of 2015, there was hardly any information available about the family sessions aside from official CLV content. I found enough camper reviews from kids and teens to take make an educated guess that this would be a good fit for us, but I registered with some trepidation.

I was very excited about the camp—and I can now recommend it highly!—but I’m not the sort to blindly trust the word of someone who’s trying to sell me something. I wanted to hear from parents who had actually made the trip to Waldsee with their offspring; I wanted to know what to expect, preferably from a mom like me. I took the plunge two years ago because DS1 is educated at home and it is hard to find great local options for studying German below the high school level. Waldsee is a great supplement to any German learning program, but perhaps uniquely valuable to autodidacts and others who learn without speaking partners.

We are returning to family week in 2017, this time adding DS2 to our party. Our time at Waldsee was so much fun, it seems unfair not to include the other kid, even though he’s never studied German before. I’m positive he will have a great time, and I really want to share the experience with him. Ideally, DH would join us, too. It seems wrong that he has to miss out on all the fun, but his vacation time is just too precious and Minnesota is too far afield.

Having dispensed with the exposition, here are a few reassurances that I wish I’d heard before my first trip to Waldsee.

1)    During family week, adults have plenty of fun options provided by the camp, but families are also free to spend their time as they choose.

In many ways, I’m a happy camper. I love cheesy camp songs. Though I’m an introvert, I love to be nestled up alongside, if slightly apart from, the cheerful camaraderie of others. My experience at Waldsee was just about perfect in this respect.

I was always aware of a fun activity I could join. I think something was on offer every waking minute of the day! The overall feeling at Waldsee is exhilarating and joyful.

I never felt like I was being forced or bullied into participating when I didn’t want to. Every activity was an opt-in.

In this vein, I also felt supported as a parent to allow my child to join in—or not. DS1 found a group of compatriots on the very first day, choosing most often to hang out with them for the rest of the week. This was a real shocker! DS1 is not a joiner, and I’d expected to be constantly nudging him into participation. Whether this was the magic of Waldsee or simple good luck, we’ll see when we return this year.

If my child had shown signs of over-socialization stress (introverts know what I mean), I would’ve pulled him out and taken him back to the cabin for some alone time. It was pretty obvious that the program allowed for it.

This is also a good place to mention that our party of two inveterate introverts felt we had sufficient privacy to unwind and recharge, even though we were sharing a room with one other family and a house with many others. Specifics of one’s personal space will vary depending upon who attends camp any given session, but we had curtains for physical privacy and enough space not to feel physically or aurally crowded.

2) Though the official policy is cautious, a family with some physical special needs can expect to enjoy Waldsee

We have some dietary needs that aren’t mainstream (but nothing life-threatening.) I was also diagnosed with a serious autoimmune condition in 2015. I was mildly concerned about having good food options, and I was pretty nervous about my own comfort and physical health at camp.

For food, my concerns were mostly unfounded. There was one meal where the kitchen assumed a lower lactose option (based on hard cheese) would be safe for my severely lactose-intolerant son, but they were able to give him the vegan option when I expressed concern that it wasn’t. He could’ve survived on bread and vegetables for one meal if it had been a bigger problem.

Family week makes this a bit easier than standard sleep-away camp weeks at CLV because we retained the option to keep well-wrapped/sealed personal food with us in our cabin. I had safe, supplementary food that we never needed, but it gave me peace of mind to know my son would never go hungry. Food from home would be considered contraband during sleep-away camp weeks, and it would be confiscated upon arrival.

As far as my concerns about staying comfortable as an adult with health problems staying at a kids’ summer camp, everything worked out pretty well. I never felt pressured to join an activity that would cause me physical problems. The bunk beds, while far from luxurious, were comfortable enough that I could sleep using standard bedding. Sharing a bunk with a family member made this easier since I could insist DS1 sleep on the top. There are days where climbing a ladder is simply out of the question for me.

If your family requires medication, consider bringing a suitable locking container for it. During family week, you keep and dispense your own family’s medications. Because there are no locks on the doors, I kept all of my pills locked up in a medication bag and secured in my suitcase all of the time. I never felt that my belongings were in any way compromised, but I didn’t want to risk a child getting into my medication and being poisoned.

We are making some different choices for our second stay at Waldsee, primarily due to my physical needs. The biggest change is driving to Minnesota instead of flying. My one major discomfort during the 2015 family week could have been alleviated with camping equipment I already own. The thing I missed most was a cushioned chair with a back. At camp, you sit on hard wooden benches most of the time. Young backs and bones manage this very well, but my arthritis made it painful. I was only really comfortable at Waldsee lying down in my bunk. This time, I’m going to pack a folding camping chair to use in my cabin and possibly also at longer activity sessions.

I had a lot of concerns about what would happen if my condition flared at camp. Upon arrival, many of these fears were allayed. Our T-Mobile and Verizon wireless phones both worked in the parking lot, so we weren’t cut off from communication with family or physicians. The drive from Bemidji wasn’t too long, and the road was in good condition. It seemed likely that expert help could arrive quickly if needed. The camp buildings were mostly pretty refined structures. These weren’t the very primitive cabins of my childhood Camp Fire experience. Mosquitoes were mostly outside, the furniture was of sturdy household quality, and I could flip on an electric lamp if I needed to find my way at night.

3) The best way to arrive and depart Bemidji, MN

In 2015, we flew into Bemidji (BJI), flew out of Minneapolis (MSP), and we used CLV transportation options (charter bus) to get between Waldsee and the airports. The transportation staff was professional and everything went as planned, but one lesson learned is that you lose too much time from the last day of a short week by flying out of MSP. You leave camp before breakfast to make the multi-hours drive to Minneapolis. If you are paying to attend this moderately expensive camp, make the most of it and enjoy every hour you’ve paid for!

Flying into Bemidji was easy, and I suspect that flying out would have been equally satisfactory. We arrived Sunday and stayed overnight at a hotel to acclimate to the time zone before camp, and also to give me a comfortable night’s rest before what I feared would be a week of roughing it. The hotel night was pleasant, but I would only suggest it if it saves you a fortune on airfare to or from BJI. Some of the local hotels have free laundry facilities that might make an overnight before heading home very productive.

The biggest issue with flying to and from camp is the quantity of stuff you can carry by plane. We rented a set of bedding from CLV so we could check only one suitcase for the trip. The bedding was adequate, but bringing my own from home will make me more comfortable this year. If you fly, I’d suggest paying the airline fees to check a second bag full of bedding over renting linens.

A great deal more can be said about who might enjoy the Concordia Language Villages experience and how much one can learn in a week, and I intend to expand upon this in future posts. For now, I’m beginning with the few points that gave me the most angst as I planned my first visit to Waldsee, and offering the advice I think a newcomer should hear first.

Have you ever attended—or considered attending—family week at CLV? Feel free to share your best advice, or ask your most burning questions, in the comments!

Here’s a link to another mom’s blog series about attending family week at the CLV Russian site, Lesnoe Ozero. I was looking for exactly this information back in 2015.

Here’s my next installment in what I’ll call Waldsee family week for dummies, this time with more pictures.

Books that change the contours of my mind

  • 1984 by George Orwell

  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

  • The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

  • The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

  • The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

  • An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

  • The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Listed in roughly the order I experienced them, these are extraordinary novels that had a profound effect upon my very understanding of the world. They stand out as “the greatest books I’ve ever read.”

It’s telling that most of the titles were read in or before young adulthood. Is youth simply more open to seismic shifts of consciousness, or did my good education expose me to a spectrum of great writing, exactly when and as it should?

The closest I’ve come in recent memory to a reading experience as paradigm-altering as these was non-fiction:

  • The Little LISPer by Daniel P. Friedman and Matthias Felleisen

While I still read novels for pleasure almost every day, this does reflect a trend I’ve observed in my life.

As a child, my discretionary reading was primarily fiction. As an adult, the majority of my selections seem to be non-fiction. Six of the seven books I have out from the library today are non-fiction titles. My Kindle is filled primarily with novels, bought and borrowed, so this may not be a representative sample of all my reading, but, when I consider the mental effort I put into reading these days, I do feel as though  it is non-fiction that provides most the gear-grinding heft of deep thought and hard work.

Sometimes I think that a lifetime spent enjoying wonderful writing has simply raised the bar for what qualifies as “a good book,” making great novels ever harder to find. Believe me, I’m still actively looking for one every time I visit Amazon.com or the local library. A non-fiction title need only offer new information in a palatable form to warrant at least a browse, if not a thorough read.

Is a shift from fiction to non-fiction a natural side effect of maturity, reflecting adult values and responsibilities? Or could my self-imposed exile from the world of intellectually demanding technical work to the domestic sphere and full-time parenting be the weightier factor here?

How have your reading choices changed as you’ve grown?