My Homeschool Review Experiences

I have now been through three reviews with three different reviewers in my school district.  One of my other posts talks about how I approach the reviews.  In this one, I’ll talk about the attitudes of my reviewers.
There is no way to request the same reviewer.  The school district sends out a list of locations (various branches around the county of the public library) and times, then parents pick a half-hour time slot for each child.  This fall, the process was actually quite improved by the fact that we could sign up online and see what slots were available, and also reschedule there if necessary.  In the past, the parents had to email the times they wanted to and hope that it matched an available slot.  However, still you just sign up for a time and there are about 6 reviewers, so you get whichever reviewer becomes available around your appointment time.
Fall 2015: This was my first ever homeschool review for my 5th grader.  It took place during the first time slot on the first day of reviews.  My kids did not come with me.  My reviewer was an older man, accompanied by an older women who was training to be a reviewer.  She made it clear that any notes she might take would be about the process, not about me or my child.  The man commented several times about how much he appreciated the organization of my portfolio and how I wouldn’t believe some of the stuff they see from other parents.  He did look closely at everything I had brought and made some random comments about certain math topics, history activities, whatever. In hindsight, I feel this was the most thorough review I had, probably since they knew it was my first time and the guy was trying to show off for his trainee.  They were surprised that my son (again, a 5th grader) keeps his own reading log.  They were shocked that he could type a written assignment and asked me how he learned to type.  At the end of the review, they asked me if I am teaching him how to do spreadsheets and presentations.  I am not sure how they leaped from “wow, he can type?” to “could he do our bookkeeping?”.  Maybe it was supposed to be a joke.
Spring 2016: This review was rescheduled to another day and location because, without much prior notice, the library meeting room suddenly had to be used for the primary election.  So, it took place at a different library branch that we had never been to before and it was a bit strange.  The meeting room at this branch was in the basement of the library, separated from every other part of the library.  This time my kids came to the review with me.  The reviewer was an older woman.  She literally just flipped through the portfolio without looking at anything except for one packet we had done for a field trip to a National Park.  She commented that she should go visit there, too.  She commented that she appreciated my organization and talked about the mess some parents bring in.  When she glanced through my planner, she extremely impressed that my son is learning German.  I told her my kids are growing up bilingual and we are heading to Germany in a few weeks.  Then, she spent a good 5 minutes telling us how she wanted to travel there and all the stuff she wanted to see.  At the end of the review, she (jokingly?) asked what I was teaching my not-quite-2-year-old.
Fall 2016:  This review took place at our usual library site.  This time, I had the same reviewer who had been training the previous year.  She again praised my organization.  As she flipped through the portfolio, she couldn’t even contain herself over the awesomeness of our home education.  She scrawled random keywords all over the review checklist: Latin root words, theatre, write his own music for his U-tube [sic] channel.  I did have to stop her when she raved about division of integers being an Algebra 1 topic. According to our math programs pre-test, that was a skill my son needed before he could start his pre-algebra book.  But I guess I’ll take the reviewer thinking I am going way above grade-level rather than being chastised for not being rigorous enough.  After going through my portfolio, the reviewer took kind of a lackluster look at my planner because she was already thoroughy convinced that my son was getting a fabulous education at home.
So, in my small case-study of homeschool reviews, they are not a big deal.  The reviewers seem to be retired teachers who are looking for typical schoolish things.  They just want to put check marks on their list and hopefully get through all the reviews early and go to lunch or home.  Each time a review comes up, I secretly hope that I get a confrontational reviewer just to make it interesting.

Homeschool Reviews with the School District

My state gives homeschooling parents 3 options to prove that the child is being educated at home in a sufficient manner.  The first option is to review with the local school system.  Secondly, parents can join an umbrella organization that handles the reviews and vouches for them with the state.  Or third, kids can be enrolled in a correspondence curriculum and have that organization vouch for the education.  I have chosen the first option, mostly because it doesn’t cost me anything.  At this point, I can’t see paying $150-$400 per year for a secular review.  I also can’t see paying any amount of money to a religious organization.  I find the term “correspondence course” to be really outdated and I am not interested in teaching an expensive boxed curriculum.

The school district’s review procedure is that twice a year, sometime between November and January and again between April and June, each homeschooling parent has to schedule a meeting with them at a local library. The parent has to show evidence that their child is getting “regular, thorough instruction in the studies usually taught in the public schools to children of the same age”.  I have heard from several parents that the school district reviewers can be difficult; however, I am 3 for 3 in breezing through the review.  My approach to the homeschool reviews has been to look like I know what I am doing and to give them what they are looking for. The reviewers have been so impressed by the mere fact that I had my stuff organized that they barely even looked at any actual work my son did.  Seriously, each time, the reviewers have thanked me for being organized and have told me, “You wouldn’t believe the mess some parents bring to the reviews!”  Now, I am a little put off by their judgmental attitude, but at least they are not naming names or pointing out people.

My first strategy in looking like I know what I am doing to make a good first impression.  I probably go a little overboard, but I pretty much dress like I am going to a job interview. I put on make-up and do my hair. Actually, I plan on testing this first-impression-theory at my spring review, by dressing way down.  So, stay tuned for that.

Second, I provided them the information they want to see in the order in which they check it off their list.  I see a lot of parents come into the review lugging crates and bags of materials.  Ok, maybe they have 7 kids to discuss and I just have the one right now.  However, I have always reviewed with a minimalist portfolio of one 2-inch binder and my planner.  For my first ever review last fall, I also brought the science lab observation book and the history timeline book, but now they stay home.  My binder always contains the following:

  • the copies of my previous review checklists (obviously the first time, I didn’t have one of those)
  • the letter the district sends me at the beginning of the school year to certify that I am educating my child at home
  • a copy of the state’s homeschooling law (so they know that I know what they are allowed to ask for)
  • dividers labeled with each subject I am required to teach in the order in which the subjects appear on the reviewer checklist

Then, within each subject section, I provide a typed list of the resources we use.  That is just titles and authors of the textbooks, workbooks, library books, etc.  It is NOT a complete official APA bibliography citation.  That is followed by work samples in each of the four academic subject (math, English, science, and social studies) plus health.  For the elective subjects (P.E, art, and music), I provide logs of date, time spent, and a couple of words describing the activity.  I used to print out photos of the actual art work, but I did not bother with that this fall. The amount of samples I provide has varied.  The first time, I brought one sample for each week and one complete week’s worth of work (my interpretation of showing that I am providing “regular” and “thorough” instruction).  The second time, I gave about one piece of work per two weeks because it has been over 20 weeks since the last review.  This last time, I showed one piece of work per week.  The planner I had used for these reviews is a teacher planner with one week across each two-page spread.  There are blocks for each subject and space for field trips and activities.

Sure, it is a constant effort to maintain these records.  My son and I spend about 15 minutes each Friday night going through the week’s work and sorting it into subject binders.  He makes sure everything has a date on it.  I fill in the activity logs for the non-academic subjects.  Then, when it is time for the review, I go through each subject binder and pull out samples for the portfolio binder.  About once a month, I would add to the lists of resources, mostly for history and science books we got from the library.

My strategy might not work for homeschooling parents who are less schoolish than I am or for very young children.  We create a lot of paperwork (worksheets, essays, etc.) that is easy to file.  If you are doing more cross-curricular projects, it might not be easy to designate a subject for each item.  However, the reviewer is not going to know (or care) that a certain activity covered music, math, and history. If you file it under history for that week, that’s where it will be checked off.  For a young child, who can’t write much, I may relay more heavily on my planner and photographs than on papers.  I’ll have to put that to the test in a few years when I have a new kindergartener.

The Dangers of Adaptive Testing — Resilient Homeschool

Adaptive tests like the Smarter Balanced Assessment and iReady are inappropriate and contraindicated for a rigorous college preparatory program. There are two main reasons I’ve heard why parents and educators like the idea of testing. The first is as an assessment of what a child knows. The second is to prepare the child for testing […]

via The Dangers of Adaptive Testing — Resilient Homeschool

Why aren’t you in school?

As I was planning my future homeschooling a year ago, I dreaded the number of times I would get this question.  I contemplated many witty comebacks. However, in almost 8 months of homeschooling, we have never been asked.  And yes, (gasp!) we have something to do outside of our house almost every weekday.
Surprisingly, the only questions my son has gotten were from other kids in our neighborhood who are in school.  The one kid is the same age as my son and used to be in the same class.  His questions are pretty harmless and he is just curious about whether we do the same stuff that he does in school.
The other kid is a few years younger and generally a know-it-all.  Every time my son runs into her, she interrogates him about what he did that day and how many worksheets he has completed.  I finally got her to lay off the third degree when I told my son to come in after a couple of hours on a snow day so that he could finish his work.  She was shocked that homeschool does not close for snow days.
I have gotten a lot less hassle about homeschooling than I had expected.  Pretty much all of my former teaching co-workers think homeschooling is fantastic.  Any random people we talk to usually know someone else who is homeschooled or they are very interested in how homeschooling works.  My new worry is what happens when we go to Germany on a few weeks, where homeschooling is famously prohibited.  Although, there are some school breaks while we are there, so a 10-year-old in public on a weekday might not appear strange.

Getting out of the Schooling Mindset: Grades

One of my preconceived notions about homeschooling was that there is no “test security”.  If parents give tests and grades, how does anyone know that kid actually completed the tests alone?  Wouldn’t the parent just give the kid an A on everything?

I realized that grades in school are meaningless, too.  Parent complain if their kid isn’t getting the parentally-approved grade.  How many coaches, parents, and kids have “reminded” a teacher of the academic eligibility rules to play a sport?  So, when report card time rolls around, how many teachers just nudge up a kid’s grade a little (or maybe more) to avoid another phone call?  Is that really fair to another kid whose grades are not being patrolled by various adults.  And let’s not even get into the variations between the assignments graded by different teachers teaching the same class and who gives extra credit and for what.

In my home education endeavor, I give a few tests.  We have a weekly spelling test, a math test at the end of a topic, a science test at the end of a unit.  I check them, but I don’t record a grade.  I want to see that the important details stuck.  If there are mistakes, we go over them and fix them, just like we do with all work.  The school district review people like to see test, so that’s what we give them.

I guess if I do high school at home, we are going to have to keep grades for a transcript, but we’ll cross that road when we get there.

 

 

Getting out of the Schooling Mindset: The Schedule

I started my home educating plan with what I knew: school.  I started by making a weekly schedule that allowed so many hours to each subject.  The school system gives suggested weekly amounts of time for the “specials”: music, art, and gym.  Ironically, they don’t tell you how much time to spend on the academic subjects. I sat down to figure that out from my son’s previous elementary years and a couple of homeschooling advice books.  There was quite a range and none of it seem to fit neatly into my plan of 8am to 2pm school days.

Well, the hourly schedule was never used.  It went out of the window the first day of our school year because I had to take the car in for service.  So, I packed up the kids and took the planned work with us on the road to the car place.  The schedule would have failed on a few more days that week because we had activities in the morning.

Instead of a schedule, I write all of the work for the day on the dry-erase board.  As things get done, they get wiped off.  Are we spending the “right” amount of time on everything?  I keep a log of the “specials” to show that we spend about an hour on music, art, and gym each week.  As for the other subjects, I realized that it is absurd to put a time requirement on them.  Who is to say how long it takes to read a science section or complete a math worksheet?  How much language arts does it take to fill an hour and do I subtract the bathroom breaks and other interruptions?  So, instead, I make up assignments for the week and post them everyday.  I’d say 90% of the time, everything gets done on the day that it is assigned.  Sometimes, we need more time on a particular activity (or life gets in the way) and then, I adjust the plan for the next day.  I only plan one week ahead.

I still struggle with the thoughts of doubt.  Are we doing “enough”?  It is really hard to tell because in the last couple of years, I rarely saw the work that happened at school.  In kindergarten and 1st grade, a million useless pieces of paper came home every Thursday.  But then, it dwindled to near nothingness.  So, with homeschooling, I can see the work.  I file everything neatly into binders and take photographs of the art projects.  When I doubt myself, I can see the paper trail.

Do I fit into the homeschooling community (instructionally)?

I began my homeschooling research with what I am used to from being a teacher.  I tried to figure out what my school district teaches in the 5th grade.  For some subjects, a simple list of 5-7 subjects was given.  For others, it was dozens of pages of standards with nothing specific.  I had to wrap my head around the fact that, unlike in school teaching, there is no checklist of topics to complete in homeschooling.  So, I looked for sources of materials, free if possible.  I didn’t want to have to buy textbooks for every subject.  I discovered that homeschooling falls into 4 categories of instructional approaches.

Traditional

This is essentially the parent acting as the teacher for every subject.  This is the approach I initially thought I would take.  However, one issue with this approach is that I have a much younger child to take care of while homeschooling, so I can’t really be teaching everything every day like I would in front of a classroom.  So, my son needs to be able to do a lot of learning on his own.  I am also cheap, so I do not want to buy a curriculum.  School-use textbook prices are ridiculous.  Plus, the materials that he has been getting at school the last few years are sometimes total crap, so I certainly don’t want to buy that same crap to use at home.  Materials marketed to homeschooling parents often cater to the majority, so history and science contain a heavy dose of religion.

Classical

This seems to be a conflicting concept.  On one hand, it is the approach used by many religious families.  On the other hand, it is an approach that teaches children logical thinking.  It seems to me that the logical thinking aspect would lead to children realizing the religious aspect makes no sense.  Maybe the two different groups use the same term to mean different things.  I really only read up on the logical thinking version.  I would like to infuse some of the logical thinking concepts into my home education.  However, I realized, sadly, that I have no training in logic, so I need to work through those ideas myself.

Computer-based

This means online school.  Again, I am cheap, so I am not going to pay for someone else to virtually instruct my child.  We may go this route of we are going to continue educating outside of public and private schools once my son gets to high school, so that he can get an actual diploma.  In the meantime, we are going to make ample use of free online resources, databases, etc.

Unschooling

This is basically letting your kid be in charge of his own education.  I am too much of a control-freak to try this.  Then, I let the idea marinate a little.  I do want my child to peruse his own interests and branch off from what I am teaching him.  I want to make use of “teachable moments” that come up in every day life.  So, maybe over time, I could loosen the grip a little.

My Approach

I am starting with an outline of ideas I got from Almost-free Homeschool 5th Grade: A Free-Thinker’s Secular Curriculum (a low-cost Kindle book I found on Amazon).  I am going to use the history curriculum and the language arts curriculum pretty much as it was detailed.  However, I am going to add some literature related to our history topics using library books.  I might have to buy a couple of books for history reference.

The science curriculum was all biology.  I am going to use some parts of it, but I am basically going to go with the topics that my school system teaches in the 5th grade.  I just don’t like biology that much that I want to just do that all year.  We are going to mix in some Earth science and physics.

Math is my subject!  I am going to be doing a lot of direct instruction myself here.  I have been beyond frustrated with the lack of coherent instruction my son has gotten in at least the last two years.  It is difficult for me to even pinpoint what he knows.  So, I am using Khan Academy as kind of a skills check and I am making up my own curriculum from there.

Having covered the 4 major subjects, let me talk about the “electives”.  We are a bilingual family, so I have been teaching a second language at home my son’s entire life.  Homeschooling will actually give me an opportunity to even out his skills between the two languages.

I am going to outsource music, art, and phys. ed. for at least a portion of the year.  I am not an artsy/musical person.  My son wants to learn how to play the guitar, so there is his music class.  I can probably wing an art class, but if I come across some kind of lesson, I’ll take advantage of that.  My son doesn’t care for sports despite my husband’s love for them.  We are going to try swim class and maybe something else, though.

Do I fit into the homeschooling community (philosophically)?

Society has trained me, like many other people, to have a certain image of homeschooling families. The first image is of long-skirted fundamentalist Christians who like to keep their many children (especially the girls) as sheltered as possible. The second image is of long-haired anti-establishment hippies who like to let their kids follow their every whim.  I don’t actually know any homeschooling families that fit either stereotypes.

Over the years, I have taught several students in school who had previously been homeschooled.  Some were a little strange and missing in major background knowledge, but so are many children who have always attended school.  But others were just filled with amazing intellectual curiosity, thinking skills, and study habits rarely seen in their schooled peers. I didn’t really know the families of these students, so I wasn’t privy to their decision to homeschool in the early years and later send their kids to school.  I am presuming that many of them did homeschool for religious reasons since I was teaching at religiously-affiliated private schools.

We are not religious.  In fact, we are devoutly atheist.  So, a large part of the homeschooling world is on the other end of the philosophical spectrum from what I am looking for.  But I have found some resources and groups that either do not actively promote religion or are strictly non-religious.  Although, percentage-wise, I know that I am in a very small minority.  The fact that this blog name wasn’t taken yet, is a testament to that fact. We shall see how things go as I meet more homeschooling parents.

The Home Educating Decision

I have been pondering the problems with public school since I started teaching in the system.  My son has occasionally asked if he could be homeschooled for a couple of years now.  My husband figured we turned out fine on a public education, so why rock the boat.  About a month ago, however, we made the decision that after the current school year, we will educate our son at home.

Who would have thought that traveling would bring my husband around to the idea of homeschooling?  The man needs to be heavily medicated to get on plane.  However, he loves Disneyworld!  (He drives or takes the train to get there.)  And he loves money-saving deals.  So, to save money on a Disney vacation, you have to go when most kids are in school.  The dilemma became whether we could take our child out of school (plenty of people do) to take a cheaper trip.  In the end, my husband realized that it would be much easier if we didn’t have to go by the school calendar.

The realization that the school superintendent was standing in the way of our family vacation planning happened to conincide with my lamenting about standardized testing.  I have been fighting with the school system about a particular assessment.  This test is supposed to show how students progress over time, however, my straight-A student’s scores are see-sawing.  I know that I was not going to win this fight, but at least I might make a little dent.  In the end, my son won.  He will not be taking anymore standardized tests for at least a couple of years.  Ironically, there is only one public school activity in which the state allows homeschoolers to participate: the standardized testing.  We are going to opt-out of that, something which my state does not allow public school students to do.