Opening up to tech…

19 month old M tries to make this screen time (watching a BBC French program) more socially interactive by reaching out towards his big sister.

For a very long time, I thought of technology as something that I had to “keep out” of my home and house and away from my children. I took the idea that children should be allowed no more than two hours of screen time a day very seriously, by basically not allowing them any screen time. I considered myself well versed in the dangers of screen time on children’s brain development.

Eric, in the meantime, has always been fairly pro-technology. I remember him telling my sister, who has two older boys, “don’t worry too much about them playing video games. There’s a lot of bonding that goes on during those times.” I silently scoffed. “No. My children will play outside. And run around and play make believe using sticks and pinecones and only what nature gives them,” I thought to myself. “My children will be elves.”

Well, my children are not elves. They enjoy time outside. But we don’t exactly live on a nature preserve. (In fact, we live along a very busy state highway, which means that time outside near our home can actually be incredibly stressful and harmful to their health and brain development in myriad other ways.)

We have recently undergone a number of technology upgrades around here: spear-headed, of course, by my husband. Making decisions about large purchases, and especially “tech” large purchases (if the opportunity presented itself, I’d probably buy a cow without batting an eyelash) gives me hives. Fortunately, I think it has the opposite effect on Eric. And, well, it turns out that I don’t hate all the tech upgrades. The girls and I have bonded over a few games, snuggled up on the couch together with the iPad, trying to solve puzzles and escape rooms. We chat and talk through the whole thing and also try to learn how to work together as a group.

We have had multiple conversations about the costs and benefits of technology and one theme that continues to emerge is the ways in which technology can serve to isolate individuals but that it can actually bring people together and be a social activity. We don’t have a “system” that we follow for amount of time on technology or in front of screens. Rather, we attempt to have on-going conversations and to “train ourselves” to listen to both the internal and the external cues that tell us we’ve had enough of interacting with the world in one way, time to do something else.

On that note… I’m hearing an external cue.

My rural elementary education

I grew up in rural Minnesota, about 10 miles outside of the ‘big’ town where I eventually attended junior and senior high school. My parents rented an old farm house surrounded by empty barns and concrete feed lots long-since retired from use. My nearest neighbors lived more than 2 miles away. Balancing this physical isolation was the limitless opportunities for free play in groves of trees or open, monoculture fields of corn or soybeans. While homeschooling our children now, I think back upon my elementary school days at the small local school with 9 kids in my class and around 50-60 total in 3 classrooms for grades 1-6. Because it was so small, we all had recess together and play was always with kids older and younger. Class time was structured and taught by strict teachers that did not suffer fools. Given where we lived, most of us had a lot of time alone but I never felt isolated. It was a nice balance. This came crashing down when it was time for the move to the big town. Only after being in much larger classrooms and getting kinda lost in the shuffle, do I remember hating the fact that I lived so far away and dreading summer break when I would be missing out (on what, I don’t know). I think a big part of what changed (but I didn’t realize at the time) was the lack of interactions with kids of different ages. I was happiest in the smallest of settings socializing with kids of all ages. That was the most fun for me, and I think I learned a lot, both academically and socially. Fast-forward to today, and I think the idea of presenting opportunities to our kids to play and interact with people of all ages is a pillar of our educational philosophy. I really believe that something is lost in the vast ‘monoculture’ classrooms and schools today where it’s easier than ever to become isolated and your interactions with students of different ages is scarce.

Homeschool FAQs: How else do you teach math?

We like Borenson’s Hands-on Equations for 9yoA. And she seems to enjoy it too. While we encourage her to do one page a day of work from this set, it doesn’t always work out that way. But she has been able to do basic algebra using this system and has been moving into working with negative numbers. There’s a certain elegance to the system and it’s a nice way to visualize how to balance an equation and solve for a single variable. From time to time, Eric and I insert our own explanations here and there to point out, for example, “order of operations” and to help her learn some math “vocabulary” but this system can be very self directed and it’s fairly intuitive. We highly recommend it for both kids learning algebraic concepts for the first time and even adults who don’t feel like they nailed it on the first go around.

Homeschool FAQs: How do you teach math?

Math is everywhere and homeschooling is a family affair. This is an example of a worksheet that the kids’ grandmother came up with for 6yoZ to complete. It serves the dual purpose of allowing my mother to live out being a teacher whilst giving Z some more “traditional” schooling and a feeling of accomplishment. Z loves the individual attention. And I suspect my mom loves giving it. Not shown: an impromptu lesson on adding double digit numbers.

Context is everything… or, at least, it’s something

A picture is worth a thousand words.

If we lived elsewhere, we might not homeschool. But we live where we do: Montgomery County, Maryland. The picture is from a brand new (very expensive) public library that recently opened. The section of the library in the photo (beginning at the carpet pattern change) was supposedly made and designed for children. We live in a county in which decisions are made and money is spent in such a way that the “artwork” above is the end result. Next to the children’s section. Of a public space. As one of the members of the book group I sometimes attend recently summarized: “This art work draws you in while it simultaneously rejects you.” Which is an apt metaphor for this county as a whole.

Homeschool FAQs: Do you have a schedule that you follow?

A current iteration of a “schedule”. Looking at the “big”, weekly picture rather than day by day and hour by hour.

My first response to this question is usually a firmly wish-washy: not really. When I am asked this question (as I often am these days), it makes me recall a conversation I had in the pediatrician’s office on a visit with a newborn A. When it came to the “do you have any questions time,” I said sheepishly, as if the grey-haired woman sitting across from me was my confessor rather than a medical doctor, “we don’t really have a ‘routine.'” Her response was, “You probably do, you just don’t know it.” In other words: don’t worry about it. I would be wise to have the same response to this issue of a schedule these days: don’t worry about it. But, I’m not wise.

But, in truth, we really do have a homeschool routine, we just don’t always realize it and it’s not really based around subject areas the way a more traditional classroom is. In fact, it’s not based around subject areas at all. It’s based, in part, around Eric’s work schedule. It’s also based around the girls’ “extracurricular” schedules which right now include rehearsals for the Christmas play “Angel Alert” which our parish is putting on, their “Little Flowers” meetings (which is a little like Girls Scouts and a little like informal play dates), and their music lessons. But it’s also based on the mass schedule at our church, which affords 9 yo A and I two daily masses a week and 6 yo Z one a week, and also 19 mo M’s daily naps. Other times of the year, they might also have sports practices and games.

So, yes, we have a routine and schedule when it comes to activities that involve other people, but, by and large, their “academic”/ subject-based learning is directed by what their own interests and skill levels are. For a short period of time this year (maybe six weeks?), we tried to follow a more structured academic schedule but it felt like all the down-sides of school (externally directed structure and control) without any of the upsides (socializing with peer and easy access to resources).

So, yeah, we have a schedule and a routine. We just don’t realize it.

Good Learning Makes for Bad Pictures

Earlier this week, we had to run an errand to an art store to pick up a mat for a picture we wanted to hang up. While we were there, (6 yo) Z found some plasticine that she decided to buy with her allowance money. On the drive home, she noticed a note on the box mentioning a stop motion app that can be used to make animated movies.

Over the next two days, Z and (9 yo) A worked together to make two stop motion movies. Above is a picture of them working. And learning. They are basically the Wachowski sisters.

Other than periodically offering advice, pointing out resources, or troubleshooting a tiny bit (it was the first time they had heard of “green screen” and so I helped them figure out how to create a green backdrop), Eric and I had very little to do with their process and their end products, which are charming and delightful, unlike the photograph that I took of them working above. Which brings me to the title of this blog post. Authentic, good, real work, learning, and play make for really bad photographs. They aren’t looking at the camera. If I had asked them to, I would have disrupted their flow. In fact, they didn’t even know I had taken any pictures until they saw them later on. The composition is a mess in this picture. They lighting is a disaster because they were trying to light the claymation figures and had I tried to light them, it would have created shadows on what they were doing. There’s no real “subject” at the center and it’s impossible to tell where the viewer is supposed to be looking. In short, this photographer is very much not one of the Wachowski sisters. But maybe this is a picture that their mother would have taken of them working?

So part of the point is this: I’m wary of any institutions of learning that use high-gloss, well composed, beautiful pictures that claim to show students (or anyone) learning or working. But also: we aren’t trying to sell you anything here at this blog or trying to sell you on anything. Yes, we do homeschool our children and we have spent a lot of time figuring out how to do this successfully and we’ve found some resources and ideas and ways of thinking about it that are helpful. And we’d like to share some of those here. But we don’t necessarily think that homeschooling is for everyone in every context. It’s not a cure-all.

In short: it ain’t pretty, but it sure can be beautiful.