Before I was a homeschooler, before I even had kids, my friend, Lisa Nielsen was running literacy programs in the New York City public schools. The first time I can remember thinking that schools were really messed up was when she told me that teaching reading in school is controversial among reading specialists.

Today Nielsen’s blog, The Innovative Educator is a great resource for understanding why kids don’t need to go to school to learn to read.

I did not teach my youngest son to read. He has been picking it up himself, often from video game instructions. Here are the arguments against teaching reading that give me the confidence to let him learn to read on his own: Read more

Often, parents ask me how long my son has been skateboarding. This is parentspeak for, “I hope your kid is a lot older than he looks because I don’t want to think my own kid is slow.”

I think the core parent worry is that their child is falling behind and the parent’s job is to keep that kid out in front. We all pretend to not think that, because it’s not a healthy way to parent—as if we are in a race—but I think most of us battle against thinking that way sometimes.

I think using curriculum is caving to the wrong side of that struggle. Here’s why: Read more

Someone sent me a press release about “educational rap music.”

I knew right away the music would suck. People who write good music do not need to say that it’s educational. I mean, is Bach not educational? Is he just for idiots? What makes some music educational and some not?

Stuff that needs to be labeled educational in order to sell is stuff that is boring and stupid. It’s stuff that kids won’t ask for and instead needs to be force-fed by adults who do not trust kids to know good music when they hear it. Read more

During my last business trip I bought my son a phone. I try to say yes to what they want to buy. I try to trust that they’ll use it for something interesting. Sometimes it ends up being a waste of money, but usually not.

So the big surprise about the phone is not that he used it for pictures—I think Generation Z just assumes that every gadget they have takes photos. The surprise to me was that he started texting the photos to people.

And then he responded to the responses, and soon he was spending fifteen minutes a day figuring out how to spell. Read more

The Washington Post announced that Sarah Wysocki has been fired. She got great reviews for her classroom performance. Kids liked her, her principal liked her. But the test scores of her students were not good enough.

There is wide agreement that teaching to the test is a vapid way to educate kids. There is wide agreement that young kids should be on the playground way more than they are right now. It’s just that we can’t think of another way to manage education on such a huge scale as the US public school system requires.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put enough money toward solving this problem that we have enough data to know we have nothing that even approximates a solution. Read more

How to teach writing: ignore grammar

I rarely tout my teaching abilities as a reason that I am homeschooling, which is probably why I have a homeschool blog full of beach resort photos instead of teaching tips.

However I do think I’m qualified to teach writing. I’ve taught writing at Brown, Boston University, and the University of Paris. And having been a teacher of college students I feel qualified to tell you that being a writing teacher is the process of giving constant feedback about what is interesting and what is not interesting.

Read more

Do you ever hear parents who send their kids to school talking about curriculum?

No. Right?

Do you know why? Because it doesn’t matter. If you use curriculum or you do not use curriculum, that is a very big question. Riverdale is a school that is following child-directed learning: no set curriculum. Most public schools are to-the-test learning: established curriculum. That is a huge difference. Beyond that, if the kid is doing well on the test, the curriculum doesn’t matter.

So why are homeschool parents obsessed with curriculum? It’s a red herring. There are huge, enormous questions for parents to be asking instead:

1. Why are we teaching to a test? My son visited my friend Melissa in Austin and they played in a gym all day. Is that better?

2. Is it a good model for girls to see moms making their life revolve around their kids? Should dads be more involved?

3. Should kids focus on learning languages and music? The benefits to learning these at a young age are huge.

Of course those are not the only three big questions, but those are three of the 300 questions that are way more important than choosing what curriculum you use.

I think parents use the choice as a way to bury their heads in research. As if that will somehow make them a “good” homeschool parent. But the more time you spend trying to figure out curriculum, the less time you are spending figuring out answers to really meaningful questions.

My son plays cello in a Suzuki program at The Music Institute of Chicago. The Suzuki method is rigid. There are ten books, and you go through the songs one by one. You learn a new skill in each song, and the Suzuki-certified teacher tells you when you can progress. To be clear, I love the program, and we drive four hours each way because the teacher we have is special.

But my son’s curiosity is not as rigid as the program. I used to let him play whatever he wants. But then we got the special teacher for special students and she put the kabosh on that. Now he plays only what she has taught him, theoretically. He searches through his Book 2 to play whatever he finds. She told me to put Book 3 where he can’t find it, but he finds videos on YouTube and teaches himself songs in the confiscated books.

Then my cousin came over (a graduate of book 10 and then some) and he played Bach for my son.

So of course my son wanted to try it. He found the music on YouTube, but he couldn’t see the fingering. So I downloaded the sheet music.

I wrote to my cousin: “What’s up with the sheet music? It’s only notes. Is the bowing a secret?” Read more

I was in low track math. I remember when I realized it. I was in the front row, on the far right, and did not understand anything going on in algebra class. We had a tiered system in our school. I was in the highest track for most classes, and the lowest track for math. I remember wondering what the school would do with me when they realized that I couldn’t even keep up in dumb-kid math.

Amazingly, after that, I was moved up for geometry, into a higher track, presumably because in a class of 1500 students, I was in the top 10%, but I was in special ed math. Something was wrong.

But something was really wrong in geometry. I was so lost that I still have nightmares about walking into class and having no idea what people are talking about.

I never needed math again until I founded my first start-up. The guy who funded it hired a CFO-type person to show me how to build financial models. Using algebraic thinking. I realized that not only was he assuming I knew how to do math, but he was assuming I knew how to use Excel. So I hired a college student to teach me how to use Excel.

Excel is amazing. It taught me how to think algebraically. And as I got better at Excel, the formulas showed me how to think in terms of possibilities, and the columns and rows taught me how to look for patterns in business models to evaluate feasibility.

I’ve founded three start-ups and each time, my Excel skills have improved because it’s fun for me. I love building financial models, and in my last company I put an investment banker on my advisory board specifically so he could help me get better at using Excel.

So I am starting to believe the people who say that kids learn math when they need to know math. I’m believing the people who tell me that it’s okay that my son can’t do long division. My son has a goat business. It’s time to get the goats pregnant, and he can’t pay to rent a boy goat until he can figure out how much money he needs left over to feed the moms and the babies over the winter. So I know that somehow, he’s going to learn math this fall.

 

Suddenly, so many traditional school subjects look totally insane to me. Here is a list.

Language Arts.
Kids learn languages themselves if you just put them among a bunch of kids that speak the language. The only reason we don’t do that is because classrooms are like antiquated, face-time-oriented  9-to-5 jobs where if you are not there you don’t count. So people can’t put their kids among kids who speak another language.

Spelling.
There is Spellchecker. I know, because I’m a terrible speller. The words like you’re/your and two/too are words you pick up if you read. Words like corollary (I needed Spellchecker for that) are words that if you misspell in a handwritten note, people will excuse the misspelling. So all that time you could spend learning to spell, you could just spend reading. Also, to learn to type you learn to spell. And kids should learn to type before they learn to write a sentence.

Cursive.
This is actually fine to teach – for art class. I bought calligraphy pens for my son. Many kids with Asperger’s love to write by hand, so I thought he’d love calligraphy. I imagined him have a signature worthy of the US Constitution. It turned out that I was right about loving lettering, but not the cursive. He took my Jelly Roll pens and wrote block letters. Fine. No cursive for him, and it’s still artistic.

Geography.
If the kid is on the Internet all the time, the kid is already a world citizen. Anyone who makes a friend with someone in another time zone will want to have a sense of where they live. They will look on a map. The terrible geography of US students comes from being stuck in a classroom, overly focused on US history and US current events, instead of out in the world, reading International web sites, meeting people and traveling. Normal curiosity can lead to a knowledge of geography tantamount to a year’s worth of the topic in high school.

Home Economics.
There is a resurgence of home economics classes that mirror the trend that men take care of kids at home more and also, homesteading and eating local are hip, so homemaking follows, in the hipster category. The thing is that if your kid is home all day, the kid can make lunch for everyone, tend the garden, and do the things that actually need to get done at home instead of making up assignments at school.