It’s February – Time to start thinking about school for next year

It’s that time of year. Christmas is behind us, spring seems so close and yet so far away. The winter doldrums have set in and we all feel restless. We want to shake things up. We want to breathe some life into the dreary surroundings. We want things to feel fresh and new rather than bleak and stagnant.

There are two things I always do this time of year – not intentionally, just as a result of a natural internal prompting. The first is to makeover my house. In the last couple of weeks I’ve bought a new (to me) couch, a new (to me) ottoman, a new rug, new (to me) lamps, a new shower curtain, and I’ve picked out paint colors and fabric swatches and on and on to spruce up my space. I love home makeovers on the cheap. The process revives me, and I always seem to go at it full force in January and February.

The other thing I always do in February, and I know I am not alone here, is rethink my home school. My oldest is in third grade now, and this is the first year this rethinking has not included the process of browsing local school websites.

I know lots of homeschooling moms come to February and start to think, “What am I doing? I am totally screwing this up. There is no way I’m teaching him everything he needs to know. We fight all the time. How do I know he’s learning what he needs to? I’m so tired of the daily battles! This isn’t what I thought homeschooling would be!”

I have so been there. And I will be there again, no doubt.  But since I’m not in that space at this exact moment, I want to share some encouragement for those who are – and for myself when I return there in the future!

So here are my words of encouragement to you, and to future me.

  1. You’re doing awesome. The sacrifices you are making for your children right now are huge and important and good. Homeschooling is an amazing gift you give your child even when it’s not perfect.
  2. School won’t fix it. Whatever “it” is, if your true desire is to homeschool, you can find a way to fix “it” at home. You may need to find more social opportunities – or cut back on social stuff for awhile. You may need to “buckle down” a little more with formal work – or you may need to take a break from the formal book learning and try a more relaxed, less schooly approach for awhile. You may need more discipline, or more fun, or more outside help, or to tune others out and listen just to your own voice for a bit.
  3. Sending your kid to school will not end the battles over learning. It will simply transform them into battles over homework. Do you have friends with kids in school? Do you know how much homework they have? Do you know how many projects they have? Do you know how many parent/teacher conferences, and back-to-school nights and socials and fundraisers and etc., etc., etc., you will have to attend?
  4. Even if you’re a bad teacher (and I promise you, you’re not, because if you were, you would never even have tried this whole experiment because you just wouldn’t have cared enough to suffer the headaches and heartaches), but even if you are a bad teacher, your kid is getting the benefit of one-to-one instruction. Do not underestimate the value of this! Do you ever feel torn because your’e trying to meet the need of 3 different kids? Imagine a teacher who has to meet the needs of 30 different kids. And then, in an hour, gets a whole new batch of 30 kids she has to teach. Think it’s easier because they’re all supposed to be learning the same thing? It’s not, because every single kid is different. And nobody knows your kid like you do.

If you want to homeschool, you can. You can. If you don’t want to homeschool, that’s fine. There are great schools out there! I’m not one to tell you that your kid will be forever damaged if you send them to school. I know school works for a lot of families. But you chose homeschooling for a reason. Probably for lots of reasons. If those reasons haven’t changed, and you still want to homeschool, don’t give up because you don’t think you’re good enough! You are good enough! You may need to change something, maybe just your thinking or your expectations, but maybe a new curriculum will help.

Almost certainly you need to be kinder and gentler to yourself and step back and realize that you’re doing an amazing job. Take a few minutes to write down everything you do with your kids and everything they’re learning. You’ll be amazed. Because you are doing an amazing job. I’m going to say it one more time. You are amazing. Because if you weren’t, you would never have even tried this insane experiment.

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Zone of Proximal Development Part 2: The ZPD and Learning to Write

In my last post I explained a bit about what the ZPD and scaffolding are and what scaffolding looks like when “teaching” babies how to roll over. In this post, I’ll provide a couple of examples of scaffolding the writing process.

I’d like to start by pointing out that writing is not a single skill, but rather a number of skills that come together into a finished product. In order to write, say, a thank you note that you would like your friend to read, you must 1) conceive of the idea of writing the note, 2) choose the words you need to express your gratitude, 3) decide which letters are in the words you want to write, 4) form the letters on the page, 5) plan ahead so you don’t run out of room and 6) put the words in order. I’m sure I could think of more skills involved, but we’ll leave it at that.
So that’s at least 6 things your child is doing if he’s trying to write something on a piece of paper. It’s a big task.

The first trick to scaffolding is identifying when your child is on the verge of moving up the skill ladder and determining what kind of support he needs to make that step. The next trick to scaffolding is recognizing when your child needs to just hang out and get comfortable on the rung he’s on before trying to make the next step.

For example, my son has recently learned to write. If you check the list above, he’s pretty good at steps 1 through 4. Steps 5 and 6 are still a struggle for him. Frequently throughout our day he will bring me something he has written and ask me to read it. He still writes pretty big. He hasn’t developed the fine motor skills he needs to neatly form tiny letters on the page. So he can fit two, maybe three words neatly on a page before he runs out of room. At this point, he just starts putting the letters for the words anywhere they might fit on the page. The result is something like this:

Which is fine if you have some context (that’s a drawing of Abraham Lincoln), and there’s only one word climbing up the page. But when the message is longer, it becomes a huge mess:

I have no idea what those say, though I do spot the word “the” in the second picture.

One day, feeling a bit frustrated, I told him that you have to write from top to bottom and left to right or people can’t read it and it doesn’t make sense. I wanted to show him. I wanted to have him rewrite what he’d written. He wanted to punch me in the nose.

I really should have kept my mouth shut in that situation. I wasn’t scaffolding, I was pushing. He’s not ready to move to the next step. He’s still getting comfortable with steps 1 through 4. The effect of my “help” was to make him feel incompetent and angry. I shut down all learning opportunities at that moment and replaced them with a flood of frustrated tears.

So there’s a great example of what not to do. But every once in a while my instincts are better.

My little girl is also learning to write. She’s not really “writing” as defined in the 6 step process above; she’s pretty much just forming letters on the page. Her fine motor skills are more mature than her brother’s and she is able to form letters quite small and neatly. She doesn’t know all of her letters, but she is very interested in writing her name and has picked up that “H” is the first letter of her name.

Helen had been writing “her name” for several weeks. Here’s an example:

Note that I am aware that you do not spell “Helen” HOI. But I hadn’t said anything to her about it. She’d tells me she’d written her name and I’d say, “wonderful!”

She kept practicing and made the following progression:

Note that she is practicing. She’s doing the same thing over and over. Not because I told her to. Not because she has a worksheet to complete. She’s doing it because writing her name is important to her right now. Also note that up to this point, I hadn’t given her any instruction on writing her name. We’d talked about how Henry and Helen both start with H. We’d pointed out H’s. Everything else she’d picked up just from living our daily lives.

Then one day she was no longer satisfied with the progress she was making on her own. We were at the library and while I was showing Henry how to find books using the computer, Helen requested her own scrap of paper and teeny golf pencil from the basket by the computer. She then pouted, “I don’t know how to write my name.” I asked, “Do you want me to show you?” She nodded. So I wrote her name on the piece of paper and she copied it. She has been practicing her name, again without prompting, for several days now and it now looks like this:

So in this case, the scaffolding I provided was a model for her to copy. Note that it still isn’t quite right. But it’s a lot closer than HOI. The letters aren’t in the right order, the “L” is backwards, and there’s no “N” at all (probably because she doesn’t feel up for tackling that diagonal line), but the model I gave her bumped her up to a new level of competence. My job now is to stand back and let her get comfortable at this level until she’s ready for my help to move up the next rung of the ladder.

How will I know she’s ready? More than likely it will be because she asks me. If I felt I just couldn’t hold back, I could ask her if she wants to learn to draw an “N.” Because I know she’s capable of tracing small letters on a page, I could print a handwriting worksheet for her and show her how to do it. But if I did that, I would be careful to present in a pretty nonchalant way. “Hey Helen! I put a worksheet on your writing table that shows you how to write the letter ‘N.'” And leave it at that. If she asked for help with it I would help her. If she ignored it, I wouldn’t bring it up again. I’d just leave it there.

The essence of scaffolding is waiting until a child is super ready to take the next step and offering just enough assistance to get him there. It’s holding a child’s hand as she jumps across a little stream. As opposed to pushing her across a river in a canoe. Either way she’ll reach the other side, but if she makes the leap herself, the experience will be much more rewarding.

The Zone of Proximal Development: When to Push, When to Hold Back

Recently in my homeschool circles, there has been much discussion of when it might be appropriate to push/encourage/nudge our children. How can we discern whether a little encouragement or guidance from us will help them jump to the next level of competence, or push them over the edge of frustration?

Lev Vygotsky, the great educational theorist, posited that there exists what he called the Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD in the educational jargon. Vygotsky believed that the ZPD is where the greatest learning occurrs. The ZPD is that area of competence just beyond a person’s current level of achievement – a level that one can reach with just a bit of the right help. He called this help “scaffolding.”

Scaffolding is something we all do more or less naturally with babies. Imagine playing on the floor with a baby who is lying on his back and rolling to his side. He’s just about to roll over. He’s almost got it. He just needs a liiiitle encouragement. You hold out a favorite toy just beyond his reach. He reeeeaches for the toy and – woop!- he rolls over. Yay! You’ve just scaffolded rolling over for the baby.

Now notice, if that baby was not yet reaching for toys, or was not yet capable of getting most of the way over on his own, or wasn’t interested in rolling or reaching at that moment, your efforts would have been fruitless.


Parents naturally scaffold new walkers. photo credit: sean dreilinger via photo pin cc/caption]

Again, this comes naturally for most of us when we’re working with babies. But it is much less intuitive when we’re working with older children. With older children who have more or less mastered the art of walking and talking, we tend to push a little harder. If a 5 year old can’t write his name, we may feel compelled to put a pen in his hand and use our hand over his hand to walk him through the steps. This isn’t scaffolding. I’m not sure what I would call it, but it isn’t scaffolding.

Our tendency to want to push to this extent comes in large part from a system of schooling that has tricked us into thinking that all kids need to learn the same skills at the same time and at the same rate in order to be at “grade level.” If a 5 year old can’t write his name, he is “behind” and we must push him to “catch up.”

Nah. The problem with this kind of pushing is that it makes learning harder than it has to be. I could start coaching a baby on rolling over from the day he comes home from the hospital, but he’s probably not going to roll over any sooner than if I’d just waited until he was ready. But in the mean time, I may make him think that this rolling over business is a lot of stupid hard work that he’s not really interested in doing.

Okay. So what does scaffolding look like beyond the babyhood? A big question that keeps popping up in my circles, and one I’ve written about before, is teaching writing. I’m not sure why we’re so preoccupied with writing, but it seems that we are. So in my next post I will look at what scaffolding looks like when teaching a kid to write.