Interested in the Common Core Debate? Watch Building the Machine Now.

Here’s a short documentary about the development of the Common Core educational standards that I hope every parent will watch:

Thank you to the HSLDA for providing the most balanced treatment of this complex topic that I have seen to date.


Here’s why it’s Smart to put Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes

Earth's layers

I know, it’s hard to tell which one is mine.

A while back, as we were doing copywork in Writing with Ease, we came across an excerpt from A Child’s Geography of the WorldV. M. Hillyer’s writing was so rich and vivid, that I decided to use the passage for a lesson on perspective.

I read the passage several times aloud.  Then Joseph, Molly, and I each drew a picture of what we heard described.  Afterward we compared pictures and explained why we drew what we drew.

As you might expect, we listened to the same exact words but all of our pictures were different.

The kids were very surprised to see that all the pictures did not look exactly alike.  Molly drew Earth in it’s entirety, I drew half of it, and Joseph drew only a volcano.  Talking about those differences allowed us to understand the passage from other points of view and to see what each of us valued about it.

Empathy – – to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – –  is an invaluable skill.  It provides the “why”, as opposed to just the “what” of others’ actions.   It lubricates relationships with people who a different from us, helps us communicate with one another, and adds nuance to our thinking about morality and ethics.

But, even if you don’t care about understanding others or living an ethical life, you should care about empathy.

There’s good evidence that “soft” skills like empathy improve “hard” skills like (testable) performance in math and reading.

The business community has begun to identify empathy as one of the key ingredients of corporate excellence, whether in overall corporate culture or personal leadership.  Study after study shows that listening is critical to leadership effectiveness and that listeners listen best with they exhibit genuine empathy for other people’s perspectives.  So, maybe empathy is the most powerful leadership tool?

While the Cat’s Away…

That would be a cuter title if we didn’t actually have some mice in our house.  As I grew up in suburbia where everything was killed to make way for shopping, those little poopers just gross me out.  Plus, we don’t actually have a cat.

But I do have my husband, who had to go out of town unexpectedly recently.  So, on the night he left, after feeding my kids ice cream for dinner,

The GOOD life

The GOOD life

and terrorizing the local goose family,


Actually, credit to the kids. They were really pretty sweet with them.

I totally rebelled against Joe, who usually asks me to leave the assembling of items to him (for good reasons I won’t get into now other than to say I generally like to “wing” it), and asked  the kids to put together our new shoe organizer with me.

These types of projects are great for kids because the stakes aren’t too high.  They have, what I like to call, an even Spiderman ratio (that is, an even power to responsibility ratio).  The work isn’t too hard and the outcome, while not necessarily spectacular,  is realized quickly.  Plus, they can see instant results of their efforts which is great for their confidence.

In addition to reading, math, listening, direction-following (unless you are me), and stick-to-itiveness, chores like this teach the kids to contribute toward the common good of the family and that we all have a responsibility to each other to make a good life.

For me, that is the most important lesson I can teach them.



Kids want and need real responsibility (don’t we all?).  Doing household chores teaches them all sorts of lessons that get missed in school.  Like the fact that tasks don’t need to be assigned to get done.  And that sometimes effort doesn’t matter if the job doesn’t get done because at the end of the day, it just needs to get done.

Here’s the question:  are you raising “doers” or “takers”?

When there is work to be done do your kids leave it until asked or jump right in?  If there is work to be done and they walk past it then they are making a choice to leave it for someone else to do.  And that stinks.  Because eventually it won’t just be you picking up the slack.  It will be the rest of us.  And that REALLY stinks.  We have too many people in society already who do that.

I know.  I know.  You’re busy.  You’re tired.  They already have so many other things to do.  It is much easier to just to it yourself, especially when kids are young like mine.  I think that often.  And chances are, most of the time the task will come out better.  But I think of child-rearing and homeschooling like one big, long, humanity/citizen apprenticeship/internship.  We are making people, hopefully fulfilled, competent ones, who add more to this world than they take from it.  The best way to do that is to teach them to do real work with real outcomes for themselves.

Plus, if you do it yourself, you just don’t get moments like this where you 20-month old single-handedly halts progress with an impromptu game of hide-and-seek.

She totally won't see me in this 1/2 finished shoe organizer

She totally won’t see me in this 1/2 finished shoe organizer

Professional Development for Homeschoolers

I saved you a seat!

I saved you a seat!

Add to my bucket list taking a course from Coursera, one of several educational technology companies offering massive open online courses (MOOCs).

If you don’t know what a MOOC is yet, you really should click on the link.   Although not perfect (what is?), they are revolutionizing education by giving hundreds of thousands of students from around the world access to free, high-quality academic content (a lot like Khan Academy but on the collegiate level).  And they highlight learning for learnings’ sake even though some courses just received college credit recommendations.  I am starting to wonder if the exorbitant cost of U.S. higher education will be worth it when my kids get to that age!

Coursera works with over 60 schools including Princeton, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania (and Yale, starting this month!) to offer courses on pretty much any topic you can imagine.   In addition to all the fun courses you can take on art or songwriting or basic writing, or law, or film history, students can now search for courses through the teacher professional development category.

Personally, I would start with Teaching Character and Creating a Positive Classroom, or Moralities of Everyday Life, or Evolution:  A Course for Educators presented by, interestingly, The American Museum of Natural History.

The timing and length of each class is different, as are the rules, so check them out individually.  If I only had more time in the day!

Why I am a…

Just trying to find our way

Just trying to find our way

Just because we’re secular homeschoolers doesn’t mean that we don’t talk about religion and faith.  We do.  How could we not?  Religion is all around us.  Plus, whenever possible, we tie in morals and ethics when talking with the kids, no matter what the subject, and Religion has a lot to say about those!

Moreover, my kids (probably like yours) are constantly asking “why”.  “Why” and “how”.  For the biggies (for example, what happens when we die) after sharing our own thoughts, we might also talk about one or more of the major worldviews’ opinion on the subject.   It depends on how the question is asked.  When we do, sometimes I refer to Patheos for perspective.

Although not necessarily useful for young children, I visit Patheos as a resource for credible and balanced information on religion and spirituality.  They offer an impressive amount of information from thoughtful and compelling writers, organized into the following “channels”:










Progressive Christian


Each week, they post dozens of new pieces on a wide variety of topics.

I particularly enjoyed their recent blogger challenge, in which writers answered the question “Why I am a …” in 200 words or less.   Patheos’ assorted contributors wrote summaries on why they each follow their chosen paths.  Check it out, and find something to inspire your family, here.

Are you a one Marshmallow or two Marshmallow Type of Person?

Stay with it, and you'll get the wisdom of this Einstein Quote

Stay with it, and you’ll get the wisdom of this Einstein quote.

Recently a friend of mine asked if my two oldest kids would participate in a replication of the the 1972 Stanford Marshmallow experiment for her daughter’s science assignment.   We had been in the house most of the week, the kids love marshmallows, and I am interested in all things pertaining to the willpower and grit of my children.  So I said, what the heck!

The experiment – – which entails having a child sit alone in a room at a table with a single marshmallow and the promise of a second marshmallow if they can wait the allotted time (15 minutes) – – has become a benchmark for psychological research on self control and success.  In short, if a child can wait for the second marshmallow they tend to have higher standardized test scores than their counterparts, lower levels of substance abuse, and their parents reported that they were more competent (whatever that means).

I was pretty sure that Molly would wait for the second marshmallow.  In addition to her will of iron she really loves sweets.  And she generally thinks before she acts.

Joseph, however, had me on the edge of my seat.  On the one hand, he can have extreme focus when he feels like it.  But he generally takes action the moment that a thought pops into his head.  He loves sweets too but it seems like any shiny or sweet distraction can, well…distract him.

You are wondering whether he ate the marshmallow, aren’t you?

He didn’t!

Both kids waited.  Angela Duckworth would be so proud!

I am happy to know that my kids could wait, especially as the video taken of them during the study showed how hard it was for them.  It took great willpower for both of them to pass the time.

Molly danced around the room and counted to herself as she repeatedly peeked back at the marshmallow.  She eventually turned her back to the table with the marshmallow on it so that she couldn’t see it at all.

Joseph, in keeping with his personality, pushed every limit.  He played with the marshmallow.  He smelled it.  He licked it once.  He licked it twice.  He licked it a third time!  He licked it four times!  He put his teeth on it without actually biting it.

I, probably like you, want my kids to stick with their goals until they achieve them.  Especially as, according to follow-up research to this experiment, the ability to delay gratification remains with the person for life.

Some of success is intelligence and/or talent.  It appears to be hard wired.  OK.  Some of it is trust.  I get that.  My kids trusted that they would get the reward if they waited because we do not break our promises to them.

But what about the grit that is taught?  How do we, as parents, teach that to our kids?  How do we teach our kids stamina?  Is it just practice at delayed gratification?  Or is there something more?

Professor Duckworth, who studies this for a living (another totally cool I job I did not know about until now) spoke about this very subject in this 2009 TEDxBlue talk:

As you can see from watching it, she doesn’t give an answer to how to teach perseverence. “Grit” is certainly integral to success.  And it can be taught.  But she does not specify how.  She leaves the issue to us.

I do think she hints at the answer though.  I think part of what she is saying is that making a habit out of being in an uncomfortable place for part your day makes us comfortable with being uncomfortable.  And tolerating discomfort is a large part of achieving a goal.  So, if we want our kids to have will power, we must as parents and educators, make the effort to instill in our kids the ability to tolerate some pain and suffering.  That is very hard in America’s culture of instant gratification.

That’s the hard part of teaching.  Heck, it is the hard part of parenting.  But that is the job.  And most days I think that it is more important than teaching addition tables or grammar and punctuation.  As Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor of psychology in charge of the experiment said, “We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.

Forget your kids.  Interested in your own grit score?  Find out while eating all the marshmallows you want.

Hard, but Wonderful, Conversations with your Kids

Molly participated in a ski-a-thon a week or so ago to raise money for Special Olympics.  At 6, she was mostly excited about another opportunity to ski with her friends.

I would also like supporting others and “doing good” to excite her.  So, we spent time talking about how the ski-a-thon would be different from her usual outings.  We talked about what Special Olympics does for participants, for volunteers, and for the entire community.  We practiced her answers for when she called friends and family to ask for sponsorship.  She made those calls and asked for support.

My husband and I try to always tell our kids the truth.  We really don’t sugar coat things.

Except for this clafoutis, which we always sugar coat.

Except for this clafoutis,
which we always sugar coat.

So far, that approach has worked.  Our kids respond to our honesty, especially when we admit we don’t know or understand something.  Usually, they just encourage us to look it up (I heart you internet!), which we gladly do.   Then we all learn together.  I love homeschooling because much of our learning happens this way!  (Did I just admit how little I know?)

Me, Googling "stuff" to teach my kids

Me, Googling “stuff” to teach my kids

That honesty, obviously, can also make for the occasional difficult conversation.  The idea that people come in all shapes and sizes and colors and religions and abilities is an accepted fact in our house.  We try to treat others as we are treated and to take each relationship as it comes.  Our differences usually result in fun and interesting topics of conversation, especially because children don’t bring any hang-ups about this stuff to the table.

Talking about how unjustly and unfairly others are treated because of differences presents more of a challenge.   While tackling “intellectual disability” in preparation for the fundraiser, we searched around for a video from Special Olympics and came upon this:

which I knew my kids would love because they are really into skeletons right now.  Cool concept.  See the athlete first, before you see any disability.  However, the video didn’t quite get the job done, as my kids did not notice anything different about the actor in the commercial.  They kept asking, “before I see what?”

So, at their tender ages, do I really want to point out the exact mechanisms of human cruelty?  Do I want to emphasize that humans can, by natural inclination, be really mean to someone else just because they look a little different or have a more limited mental capacity than them?

As I thought about how to explain it, we spotted this link at the end of the first video and the kids wanted to click on it.

Molly loved the fact that Susie destroyed her fears literally by smashing them with the golf ball.  But still, neither kid had any idea what was “different” about her or why she had so many fears.  Moreover, they could not conceive of why someone else would treat her badly because of that difference.  They just don’t view the world like that.  And my kids have the luxury of being mostly free of those kinds of fears.

I asked them if they remembered when we talked about Martin Luther King, Jr.   And how we learned about how African Americans have been treated differently, and more specifically, very, very badly, because of their skin color.  I explained that similar things have happened and are happening for other groups.  Those that participate in Special Olympics have sometimes been treated poorly because of how they look or act.

My kids were baffled by this, which at this point I’ll consider a very good thing.  But I would like to provide a gradual introduction to the rougher side of human nature.

How do you tell your kids the truth without sharing too much of the ugliness of the world?  Or do you omit parts of the story, instead saving them for when they are older?  Or is there another option?