Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Math for the Reluctant Artist

My daughter, currently eleven years old, believes she is "bad at math" because computation steps don't stick in her head. We've gone over long division and adding fractions repeatedly, and it just doesn't stick. It doesn't make sense to her, and she's the kind of learner who wants to understand the Why of something before she'll understand the How or What.

In most areas of our homeschooling journey, we unschool. This means I keep a gentle pulse on what my children are learning through experience and play. But like many unschooling mamas, I wonder about math. How much is "enough"? When we sit down to "do a little math," it often ends (at least with my daughter) in tears, anger, and frustration. It doesn't matter that I explain that she actually is skilled at math - her numeracy skills are fabulous and her ability to see patterns and relationships is quite advanced. It doesn't matter that I point out the math she uses in Minecraft. It doesn't matter if we use Kahn Academy or Brain POP or Brainquest workbook pages or just go over stuff on a piece of paper. Her perfectionism and anxiety take over. I start wondering how much math she actually needs to learn if she will never go to normal school and will likely pursue a career in art. She needs to know money skills, shopping, and cooking. She needs to be able to either file her taxes and figure out a mortgage or make enough to pay someone else to do so. But does she really need to know long division and multiplying fractions? Does she need to know how to FOIL a complex equation? I don't know.

Her dad and I enjoyed math. We were good at it. And since her brain works a lot like ours do, I suspect she could also enjoy math - again, she likes patterns and relationships and number games. So I did a search for Math for Artists for some ideas for how to teach math to a creative soul. Here are some links I discovered plus a few we've used over the years.

Riches on Pinterest
The fabulous Vi Hart (videos to watch together or let her watch on her own)
She plays a lot of the Cool Math Games - these don't teach computation, but do exercise math skills int he brain
This series looks interesting
Visual-Spatial Resources, with and article specifically about algebra
Some ideas for teaching math with art
Natural Math - a huge site full of resources for visual and kinesthetic learners as well as more traditional math-types

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tips for New Homeschoolers: You Can Do This!!

As the Homeschool Resources Director for eXL Learning in Denver, I field a lot of questions from panicked parents pulling their kids from "regular" school. They tend to be the same questions, so I thought I'd write up my answers here. These are, of course, my opinion, based on my own experiences as a homeschooling parent, my conversations with other homeschooling parents from many different approaches to homeschooling, my training as a multiage teacher, and my experiences tutoring kids who attend school. If you have any other questions, please post them in comments and I will add them!

How do I choose the right curriculum? 

This is the first thing homeschooling parents ask. They are comparing their ideas of school to their projected ideas about homeschooling, thinking they have to cover EVERYTHING that school "covers" and do it well. Obviously we want our kids to get a good education, whether that means school or homeschool. I remind parents, though, that regular school is about managing 30 kids with divergent needs. Homeschooling is about one kid, or maybe three or seven. These are kids who have grown up with your rules and guidelines. In school teachers spend several WEEKS working on procedures like lining up, turning in homework, and using inside voices before they even get to  actual curriculum. Then their days are divided into blocks of time broken up by recess, trips, assemblies, and those very procedures. Homeschool doesn't have to work like that, and you can get lessons done in much less time, whether you do formal lessons to go through a math book, for instance, or whether you learn mostly from life. So first off, don't think about recreating the hours of school at home. In other words, you don't have to fill up six hours of every day doing "curriculum." School doesn't cover everything, anyway. Not even close. See the section below on gaps.

As a homeschooler, you don't have to teach to any test. You don't have to satisfy Common Core. You do have to make sure your kid can multiply and divide at a certain point in order to move on to algebra and do advanced science, but this can be taught in SO MANY WAYS. At my house for math we cook, shop, play Lego, garden, watch the weather, play games like Speedy Eddy and Cribbage, and do some work with manipulatives and even workbooks. In other content areas, we play outside, read lots of books, watch Youtube, go to the science museum and the Botanic gardens, play Minecraft and Angry Birds, draw, paint, ask questions, clean the house, care for the chickens, take the cats to the vet, and write blog posts. A whole lot of the basics and a whole lot of "extra" stuff gets learned this way.

But I recognize that many parents don't feel safe learning this way, and they want an assurance that they are "covering" everything. What I suggest in terms of choosing more formal curriculum is to discover how your child learns and what he or she is interested in or drawn to, and then go from there. One of my kids learns online, especially visual things that she can do. So she learns a lot of math through Minecraft. Did you know, for instance, that in order to craft things they use grids, which use multiplication and division without the player even thinking about it? Take a moment to have them teach you about the grids, and then point out the math they are using. It's not even hidden or fancy math. I promise. My other kid learns by creating in the real world - Kinex, Lego, cardboard boxes. We learn math and story-crafting and art and science through making things. For instance, the other day they got out his old wooden trains. He played with making a hill that would give a train enough speed to go over the next hill. He pointed this out to me. I said, "Hey, there's a thing in science that says exactly what you are doing. Force is equal to mass times acceleration. What happens when you make the hill taller and the train a different weighted (massed) train?" (By the way, I didn't remember F=ma from my own school days. I was reminded of it from a young adult book I recently read. I find that these "coincidences" happen all the time - I read it in a book or talk about it with a friend and then it comes up with my kids. This happens in school, too, but because teachers are trying so hard to quantify and measure everything they don't have time to follow those tracks of learning.)

Okay, there I go, getting away from formal curriculum again. And yes, I get that you fear that you won't cover things or know enough stuff to teach it. So what I do when I wonder about gaps is that I go to the Colorado Department of Education page and look at state standards. What have we covered just by living and reading? What have we not covered? Then I order books from the library or watch Crashcourse Youtube videos or BrainPOP to poke our toes in those things that didn't just come up. I also like BrainQuest workbooks. You can pick and choose, covering everything from each grade.

One last thing about curriculum: You do not have to cover EVERYTHING right now. This is not like buying a house, where if you get it wrong you're screwed for a good long time. This is more like choosing a restaurant. Try this one, stick with it a while, try another, find out you don't care for it, ask your friend what they like. It's a journey.

I don't know anything about technology/math/art/science...

Learn it together. Watch videos or read books together. Look stuff up online. A recent article in The Atlantic talks about learning technology together and considering yourself a mentor. This goes for ANY subject. Do it together. You will be giving your kids several important gifts: they learn the information, but they also learn that it's okay to re-learn things, that it's great to be a lifelong learner and here's how to go about it.

How do I teach grammar/Shakespeare/calculus?

Your kids do not have to have a master's degree level of knowledge in everything. Dabble, explore, learn together. For things they are interested in and you have no interest in, sign them up for a class. Show them how to find books and websites on the subject. Teach them how to learn.

Am I teaching them to be dependent on me?

Nope. You are teaching them to learn. The kids I tutor who go to school have been told what to do each step of the way. That teaches them dependence on persons of power to figure out how to do just about anything. What a gift to our kids to teach them how to learn on their own as well as with other people.

What do I do about the "gaps" in their education?

Do you remember everything from your schooling? Do the neighborhood kids know everything and know it well? Everyone has gaps. The key is to raise kids who value curiosity and inquiry more than doing well on a test.

What about that whole socialization piece? My kids are shy/outgoing/bossy/something else...

There is socialization - learning the rules of our society - and there is socializing - hanging out with other people. Homeschool kids learn socialization by going to the grocery store, playing at the park, participating in family holidays, just living. They learn manners and how to get things done. They SOCIALIZE with people of all ages and all personality types. Studies were done that found that kids in same-age groups tend to bully and compete, whereas children in mixed-age groups behaved in more positive social behaviors like helping, teaching, and being kind. All people are shy or bossy or anxious or whatever; these traits have nothing to do with homeschooling, and in fact homeschoolers in mixed groups tend to have more authentic interactions that help them balance out any social challenges.

I don't want my kid to suffer because of my shortcomings...

Isn't that what all parents fear? a) They probably will no matter what. b) When you homeschool, you show your kids how important they are to you. You show your kids that you are listening when they say school isn't working for them. You help them find a just-right-sized spot in the world for them. What a huge gift. Life is suffering, but giving your kids a solid foundation of knowing who they are and how to work with their strengths and weaknesses will give them innumerable tools to navigate the big world we live in. And guess what? You will grow as a person by homeschooling your kids. That's another blog post, but let's just say I have become a better person by spending so much time with my intense, smart, lovely, challenging children. Again, we have learned together how to be good people in the world.


So many parents, both veteran homeschoolers and those who just pulled their kids out of school of whatever age, fear they have something to prove because they are bucking the system. You have nothing to prove. You have already shown your kid, which is who matters here, that you value him and his feelings and education. Doesn't matter what the school system or your in-laws or the neighbors think. You have nothing to prove to them. This is a journey about your family. It's just as private and important as your religion or your dietary needs or your health. It isn't easy, but the payoff is huge. Don't, however, worry about the payoff. Just take each day, each week, each month, each year at a time, and watch the awesomeness unfold.

You can do this.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Learning on Youtube by Subject

Sick Science: 
Videos and cool science experiments from Steve Spangler

Crash Course Chemistry:

Crash Course Astronomy:

Can plants survive beyond Earth? Can proteins observed in space reveal the mysteries of life? These questions and more get answered by SpaceLab, a YouTube channel created by Google and Lenovo, in cooperation with Space Adventures, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Bad Astronomy: 
Bad Astronomy is all about astronomy, space, and science. The videos are created by Phil Plait, an astronomer, writer, and sometimes TV-science-show host.

NASA Television: 
NASA’s mission is to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research. This channel helps explore fundamental questions about our place in the universe.

Periodic Videos: 
Your ultimate channel for all things chemistry. A video about each element on the periodic table.

Smarter Everyday


Amy Poehler's Smart Girls:
Smart Girls is a channel that offers music, advice, glimpses into other cultures, nice things to put into the world, and a Boy's Minute.
ASAP Science:  
Your weekly dose of fun and interesting science. 

 History for Music Lovers: (historyteachers)
A fun way to learn some history through these musical parodies. 
History: Liberty's Kids - full episodes
Crash Course US Histrory:

Crash Course World History 2:

American Museum of Natural History: 
This channel features the excellent “Known Universe” video, which gives you a six-minute journey from Mt. Everest to the farthest reaches of the observable universe.

Khan Academy: 
This channel features thousands of videos that will teach students the ins and outs of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, statistics, finance, physics, economics and more.
Videos about numbers – it’s that simple. Videos by Brady Haran.

Coffee Break Spanish
Butterfly Spanish
Professor Jason
Spanish Sessions
Web Spanish

ShooRayner Drawing:
Everyone can draw. Anyone can learn to draw better. Forget about art. Drawing is a language that helps you communicate with others. Get some paper, make some marks and you are drawing!  
Younger Kids: 
This channel is dedicated to animated nursery rhymes and stories designed to entertain and educate children between the ages of 2 and 8.
YouTube EDU: 
YouTube hosts a section dedicated to academic videos. It’s a little bit of a mixed bag, but it features some quality videos.

"Reading" and "Math" are Poisoning Our Children

I've been homeschooling using an eclectic approach for six years now (longer if you "count" preschool years), and I recently began tutoring schooled kids in reading. I find the way these brick-and-mortar-schooled students relate to reading to be heart breaking. Our country's acountability movement - where teachers' abilities are based on their students' growth measured by averages and generalities - is harming our children. They see themselves as stupid failures. Their parents, caught in the net of standardization, cause more harm by saying things in front of them like, "I don't know what happened. I think he's just lazy." The problem in schools isn't teachers' abilites. It isn't lazy children. It isn't too little or too much government control. The problem is that we have lost sight of what learning is really about.

Imagine a scene where a mom comes to pick her daughter up from soccer practice. The coach hands Mom a piece of paper with detailed information about every little minutia of soccer skills. He spent the practice testing everyone on how well they kick a ball around orange cones, bounce the ball of their heads, and kick the ball as far as they can into a narrow goal. The coach says in a gloomy, whispered voice that the girl dribbles the ball like a child two years younger than she, taken on a scale that includes world champions. The coach explains that they will be working over the next few months to improve this skill - and only improve this and other details. There will never be a game. Player and parent don't expect a game. They might have even forgotten that a game is the whole point or ever existed in the first place.

The idea is sad and absurd. But this is exactly how reading and math and spelling and probably some other subjects are taught in school today.

I look at my tutorees, who fidget with their snack cup of goldfish cracker crumbs and stare at their shoes blankly, and I tell them something they have probably never heard before. I say, "I don't care what your grades are," they look up in surprise, "or what your IEP says." A spark of light and curiousity enters their eyes. "I care that you care about reading for you. I care that you know the joy of finding a book you like. I care that when you want to find something out, you know how to do that by reading. And that's what we're going to work on." I'd probably get in trouble if their parents, teachers, or my bosses heard me say I don't care about their grades, but I don't care. I find it criminal to tell a student he is stupid and lazy when he's never been shown what the whole point of reading is. When he has been handed the details of mechanics and then tested on them and come up short, but has no idea what it's all for.

Take another comparison. Imagine students are taught about music notation - what each note counts as, the name of the note, and where it goes on the staff. They are taught scales and modes and rhythms on paper. But never are they given a drum or a keyboard with which to apply this knowledge. Never are they played Bach or Katie Perry or anyone in between. Again, the idea doesn't make sense. We don't teach music this way. We (usually) let a child fall in love with music and rhythm in daily life and on the radio, take them to the symphony and notice what they are drawn to, and then we let them mess around with an instrument. Then we teach them notation and keys and sharps and flats, in the context of the radio and the symphony and even Youtube.

But again, reading and math are taught out of context. Why? I think because we have so abstracted these skills in order to break them down into little chunks that we can test on - and test teachers skills on - that we adults have forgotten what the point is. Except for nerds like me whose idea of a lovely afternoon is wandering the stacks at a huge library, we've forgotten the whole point of reading. We don't even notice when we use math to bake cookies, go shopping, or contemplate the swirl of water down the bath drain. And while this might not seem terribly important, it is. Becuase in forgetting the beauty and context of literature, nature, and life in general, we are poisoning our children with the notion that they are not good enough. They are hearing that message loud and clear, and believing it to be true. And that may be the greatest travesty of our time. Because who will fight for justice and a cleaner planet and healthy food for all when he thinks he doesn't matter?

Friday, July 17, 2015

Five Questions for History Sources

I just finished reading Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. I highly recommend it to everyone, but especially teachers and homeschooling parents and teens. Most of the book discusses how US history high school textbooks focus on white ethnocentric nationalism and heroism rather than teaching real, balanced history (not even close) and why they do so. It also gives a more complete picture of Columbus, Thanksgiving, slavery, Civil Rights, and the Vietnam and Iraq wars. He discusses how to make history more engaging by igniting curiosity and asking questions of young scholars.

In the Afterward, Loewen present five questions students should ask when facing a source, be it a textbook, museum exhibit, or other source (pages 360-361, second edition). While these directly address history, I think they could be used similarly for any source. Students then learn to discern and think for themselves. I will paraphrase them here.

1) When and why was the source written or painted or produced? Who is the intended audience? What is the speaker intending? What is the social context (called contextualization) for the source?
2) Whose viewpoint is presented in the source? Whose viewpoints are omitted? An interesting project he suggests here is to have students rewrite the story from a different viewpoint, learning that history is not just factual information presented from one way.
3) Is the account believable? Does it contradict itself?
4) Is the account backed up by other sources? Or do other sources and authors present contradicting viewpoints and information?
5) Finally, "how is one supposed to feel about the America that has been presented"? Or whatever the subject. This helps ferret out some of question one - what is the speaker intending?

Loewen then says, "Readers who keep these five questions in mind will have learned how to learn history." (361)

Asking these questions would take up a lot of time in a history class, which typically teach to the test in today's educational milieu. But as homeschoolers, we can give our children fabulous keys to real learning and discernment while also teaching them history by using these questions as a framework for advanced scholarship. While these are written for high school students, a version of them can be presented to younger students as well. When my 9-year-old and I read Story of the World together, for instance, we notice the author's bias towards Protestantism and the patterns of history presented that focus on conquest. Or when we read the Little House books, we discuss her perspectives on Native Americans.

History is alive and dynamic, not dead and boring. By following these critical thinking steps, we can teach our kids not only facts but also how to think wisely about those facts as they are presented. That's good learning!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Complete Homeschooling Curriculum for Free (Or Really Cheap)

Want to give your kids a world class education without spending any money? Here are my suggestions for a well-rounded home-based education that requires little or no money. Assume that all books are obtained through the library (learn how to use your local library's inter-library loan system). Also see what your local public school system has to offer homeschoolers; my kids participate in a once-a-week enrichment program that provides us with free curriculum. Museums often offer discounts to homeschooling families and groups, and they also offer free days. Trade lessons with friends: maybe you can offer child care or help remodeling a kitchen or canned tomatoes in trade for music lessons or mentoring. Visit thrift stores regularly and look through the education, books, and nic-nack sections - I've found science kits, books, unused anatomy coloring books, a decent globe, pencils, and book shelves for almost nothing at our local thrift stores. Book swaps are another great place to find free currciulum. Here are a few other tips by subject. Post your scores and ideas in the comments!

Language Arts

Read books. Visit the library weekly. Try new libraries and get cards to any system you are near.

Invite kids to write a lot: shopping lists, letters to cousins or pen pals, journals, texting with friends online. My daughter is currently almost 10; she and a friend are using Google Docs to write stories together. Then I (with their permission) read what they have written and offer feedback. I teach them about proper formatting and grammar, and ask questions about what they have written. When you give feedback, keep it positive. Tell your child what stood out for you and what you wondered about. Tell them what you can see clearly in your mind as you read.

Here is the key to homeschooling in my mind: Keep reading and writing focused on your child's interests. There will be time to encourage them to explore areas outside their comfort zones and in new subjects or formats. But they will only be able to get something out of those subjects and formats if they have a solid foundation of reading and writing that they really own for themselves. That comes from loving to read and wanting to be a good communicator. That's why focusing on their interests is so important.


This is the one subject homeschooling parents stress about the most. Don't. Consider that math has two levels. The first is foundational. Expose your kids to how you use numbers every day - time, shopping, cooking, banking, sewing, weather. etc. You'll be surprised once you start to look how much you use numbers (aka math) without even noticing. Cook with them. Sew with them. Garden with them. Speak out loud the calculations you make about dinner, shopping, budgeting, etc. Not in a forced, annoying way, just as you go through your day together.

The second part of the foundational level is to play games that teach math. We played the game Speedy Eddie a lot with my oldest - it teaches counting and adding in a simple way without being obvious or boring. We played Dino Math Tracks to learn place value, and used the cute dinosaurs as counters with our younger child. We play Set to explore mathematical thinking. We play with tanagrams (you can print them of the internet) and Lego and blocks. I have spent money on Lego or course, but I've also scored them at thrift stores and gotten gifts from family and friends.

How do you get free games? First, I think games are worth the investment. But again we rely on our community. Trade games with other homeschooling families. Look at thrift stores. Check local Freebie sites and newspaper listings for sales when schools go out of business. Ask for board games for birthdays and holiday gifts. You can score a ton by tapping into the community.

Another way to get free games is to make them youself. Google prinatable math games plus the age group or skill you are looking for. Include you kids in the creation of the game and any manipulatives you make. See for some ideas

The above suggestions will build a foundation of mathematical thinking in your students' minds. The next level of math engagement comes when they are 9-12 years old. You can get math text books and "What Your Nth Grader Needs to Know" books at the library. You can join local math clubs and gaming clubs. You can get all the math education you need on Kahn Academy ( And then, as they get older, they can take community college math classes if they want more than what Kahn offers. Our local public schools have a concurrent enrollment program that pays for high school students (in school and homeschooled) to take community college classes.


Three main sources: 1) Documentaries from the library. 2) The book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. 3) Story of the World, a four-volume series of easy to digest world history. 

I recommend reading Lies first, as it will give you a lens through which to read Story. We read Story of the World aloud while the kids color the coloring pages (print from online sources related to the subject or photo copy from the supplemental material). Interested students can watch documentaries on periods of interest. Older students should read Lies themselves.

Oh, actually, a fourth fabulous source: historical fiction. Book Shark ( has great lists of historical fiction if you need ideas, or ask a librarian for suggestions. There is also a great list of historical fiction at here. Order the books through the library, read together, discuss, and look up questions online. This could be your whole history curriculum, but be sure to research online what is factual and what isn't. That's a whole education in itself, and you will discover how history isn't a done deal but is full of mystery and controversy.


You know all those questions kids ask about the world? That is the foundation for your science curriculum. You, too, will learn a ton by simply following the trail of questions. This is what Google is for. Also, again, the library. The non-fiction kids books are a fabulous resource for subjects of interest like bugs, clouds, pH, ocean animals, and so on. You can also get science videos and books on science experiments to try at home at your local library. Think this isn't educational? Try it for a few years and notice what your kids have learned. 

Go outside. Visit local waterways with binoculars, a net (thrift store or an old hanger and a piece of mesh), some little clear containers, and a magnifying lens. 

Visit the local science museum and aquarium. This can get very expensive, and while I again see this as money well worth it, you can also seek out free days and homeschool group feild trips. Ask about a discount on memberships for homeschooling families. Ask for memberships for birthdays and holidays from relatives. 

As kids get older, if they show an interest and aptitude for science, look for internships. Museums, zoos, non-profits and the like often offer internships. Sometimes these are even paid, though more often they are not. They offer invaluable experience. 

The Arts

Repeating myself here, but the resources are the same. Library fiction and non-fiction books, thrift stores (paper, colored pencils, paint, the works!), free days at the local art museum. In our neighborhood there is an organization called DAVA (Downtown Aurora Visual Arts) that offers free art classes for kids every day. Some homeschoolers take art classes at thr local public  and charter schools, or join after school art clubs. Some libraries offer art (and science) classes for free. Local community and rec centers offer classes at very affordable prices. For ideas of course there is Pinterest, but also I love the website She has great ideas for linking literature and art. 


Most libraries offer free downloadable music. They have books on learning music and music theory. Thrift stores and yard sales often have musical instruments available (like shakers and xylophones - don't buy that old violin unless you know a good, affordable repair person). As I mention above, you may be able to barter or trade for music lessons. The local symphony often offers free or reduced day time concerts. Some homeschoolers join the local public or charter school band.

Physical Education

Go play! Hike, go to the park and climb, ride bikes, go swimming, dance. Our local rec program has affordable sports programs, too, if you kids are drawn to organized sports, and some kids join school sports teams at charter, parochial, or public schools. 


What have I forgotten? I think you can take these ideas and apply them to any subject or interest. What freebies have you found?