A Brave Writer’s Life in Brief

Thoughts from my jungle to yours

Tuesday Teatime: Diamante poems!

Tuesday Teatime Melanie

Hi Julie!

We had such fun with our tea time and poetry share today! We have been talking about diamante poems, so the kids shared some of their creations while we enjoyed herbal tea and snacks. My oldest two wrote synonym poems, using the following format:

Adjective, Adjective
Verb, Verb, Verb
Noun, Noun, Noun, Noun
Verb, Verb, Verb
Adjective, Adjective

The kids started by brainstorming adjectives, nouns and verbs for their poems, which I jotted down for them grouped by word type. Then they went through their lists, chose the words they liked best, and wrote their poems. It was so much fun! Here’s what they came up with:

Minecraft, by Eamonn (9 yrs)

fun, exhilarating
learning, thinking, bonding
mods, stones, houses, blocks
building, exploring, playing
challenging, peaceful

Books, by Fallon (11 yrs)

exciting, hilarious
reading, thinking, imagining
mysteries, fantasy, sci-fi, reference
wishing, laughing, hypothesizing
different, fast-paced

I’ve also included a photo of my four kidlets as they sipped tea while big sis read out some favourite poems.

Thanks for always inspiring us with fun ways to create and explore with words!


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ONE week left before Fall Registration opens for Online Writing Classes!


We’re really excited about Fall!

We have such a great line up this year and more offerings than ever. Don’t forget to consider classes like Nature Journaling, Photography and Writing, and Just So Stories.

We are not your usual writing company offering a school-like program that creates stress and performance anxiety.

We are all about HOME, convenience, personal attention, opportunity for un-graded risk and exploration in writing, support, affirmation, process, and satisfying progress.

Check out our line up of classes!

Also, if you need help with online class decisions, do contact me. I’ve got work to do at my desk and I’ll answer the phone or call you back. If you email me, I try to respond as quickly as possible (within 24 hours max, but often within the same day).

Image © Robert Byron | Dreamstime.com

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No shortcuts to good education

Caitrin High School Graduation 2014Caitrin’s High School Graduation, 2014

Whether you are homeschooling, unschooling, or even supervising a traditional brick and mortar education, you are critical to your children’s success.

There are no shortcuts.

There shouldn’t be.

Study after study proves that involved adults (particularly parents) produce smarter, better educated kids. The goal isn’t independence from you. The goal isn’t for kids to be so self-taught, you become unnecessary.

The goal is singular and true for every educational model:

Prepare children to be capable adults.

Adult-life is an interdependent system of self-reliance and bartering/purchasing services you need. Adults read, learn, attempt, do it themselves, take classes, and then either ask friends for help or hire others to work for them. I don’t provide my own medical care—a doctor does it for me. I pay. I do make my own meals and shop for my own food. I know adults who hire chefs or eat pre-packaged foods. Both work. No one is self sufficient in every area.

This notion that kids have to be “independent” is an illusion.

Adulthood is about becoming responsible for yourself—knowing your strengths, respecting your limits, evaluating options, making quality choices.

Parents/adults model the activities of responsible adulthood (or irresponsible adulthood) every day they are with children. The invested, active parents seamlessly participate in their children’s educations. They aren’t “pushing for independence” as much as they are supporting their children in discovering what it is they need, and then in finding (and sometimes paying for) resources that meet their kids’ needs.

A concrete example helps.

Public school students may give the appearance of independence; they go to school, do homework, study for and take tests away from their parents. But they are not independent of adult interaction around the subjects they study.

A literature class will include 25-30 other students reading the same book with a teacher guiding the discussion, providing context, using literary vocabulary, and issuing instructions for activities that help the students understand the book on multiple layers. The classroom context is designed to facilitate a student’s investigation of the topic so that he or she develops a literary vocabulary.

A homeschooled high school student does not have that opportunity (to sit with an instructor who has prepared a lesson, to listen to the commentary of peers). The homeschooled high school student has parents. The discussion necessary to grow the mental agility to analyze literature must come from somewhere—must be provided. Short of online classes or co-ops, there is one person who can provide that richer context for learning—the parent.

Unschoolers do this naturally (the good ones). The conversations, interactions, and shared learning opportunities may not be on a calendar, but they are happening. Isolation is not good for education. Even if a student shows the ability to read thoroughly and deeply, a child will not glean the subtle layers or the vocabulary of analysis alone with the book. The child cannot see his or her own limited thinking without a dialog partner. These are modeled to the student through reading additional materials, online discussion with others who’ve read, and especially with parents (if possible).

If you can’t provide your teen (or any child) with that level of support—being available to help that student make the cognitive connections necessary for development—it’s your job to ensure that someone is.

Students can learn a lot online in conversation with other adults and teens (discussion boards, blogs, gaming, MOOCs, Kahn Academy, our Boomerang Book Club, etc.). If you aren’t available, turn teens loose to find dialog partners.

Consider rethinking the idea that independence is the highest good for teens. Quality interaction with invested participating adults is the best curricula for high school. The aim? To help teens become well informed, rhetorical thinkers who take increasing responsibility for their own lives.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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Friday Freewrite: Don’t Give Up

omenImage by Jonny Hughes (cc)

“Don’t give up.” What does that mean to you? Maybe describe a time when you didn’t give up (or you did!). Or are there situations where you think you or others should give up? Explain.

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It’s okay to take it easy

Two of a kindImage by aussiegall (quote added cc)

You know that day where everything is going along swimmingly?

This one:

  • The older kids are quietly finishing pages of math and handwriting.
  • The toddler is happily covered in dress up clothes.
  • The baby is napping.
  • The pre-reader is sounding out the words easily, conquering Frog and Toad.
  • The right library books for the unit study arrived!
  • The most exciting chapter in the read aloud is next.
  • Bodies are healthy and fed. Showers and baths may have been taken in the last week.
  • All the machines and various household systems work: cars, AC, dishwasher, washer and dryer, ceiling fans, refrigerator and ice maker, all four computers, the DVR, the TV, your lawn mower, plumbing, and gaming consoles.
  • No one’s fighting. No one’s complaining. Maybe dinner is already planned.
  • You and your Significant Other are getting along—good conversation, good sex.

Sit in this vision for a moment. The vision of well being—of the stars, planets, and Cheerios aligned.

Can you see it? Feel it?

When it comes, when your life hits that magical moment—what do you do?

Here’s what some of us do:

We toss a home made hand grenade into the center of the living room. We reject our ordinary happiness.


Because some of us are under the impression that things of value only happen when we’re working hard.

So, when everyone is happily completing pages, reading, and skip counting, when the home is humming and our relationship is peaceful, some of us experience an involuntary panic.

This material is too easy. She must not be learning.

He whipped through that passage too quickly. He must not be challenged.

This book is fun, so it must not be that educational.

I better take in the car.

I’m going to ask ________ about why (he or she) doesn’t _________ more often.

We move into “anticipate the next crisis” mode. To avoid the surprise attack of the next crisis, we create one—one we can control!

Instead of staying home enjoying this (surely temporary) peace, we take the show on the road—adding the challenge of managing lots of kids out in the world.

Some of us buy brand new curricula so that everyone is suddenly thrust into the learning curve of “new” rather than enjoying comfy and familiar. We can’t appreciate the joy of mastery—we only esteem struggle to learn the next step/process.

Some of us look around at our friends (in person or online heroes) and decide that what they are doing is better, and judge our happy peace as undisciplined or, conversely, not free enough.

We refuse to allow the feeling of happiness to “settle in,” because it might mean we are not being conscientious enough about educating our young.

What if we were to while away the hours without diligence and pain and struggle and effort? Would that mean we were irresponsible parents/partners/home educators?

Time for a sip of coffee.

That peace you hear? That’s the sound of your life working.

That happy completion of pages, the successful reading, the repetition of skills learned and now mastered? That’s the sound of education taking root.

No one wants to struggle with a new challenge every day. Some of the joy of learning is getting to use the skills cultivated. It feels great to copy a passage without any struggle whatsoever. It’s awesome to rip through a set of math problems, knowing you’ve got it! You get it! You can bury that page with accurate answers and even show your work.

Kids who find their daily groove and rhythm—knowing what is expected and then being able to live up to that expectation—are happy kids.

Don’t wreck it! Enjoy it!

This is the life you are shooting for! Problems will find you again, without you even trying. So for now, celebrate the modest joy of ordinary happiness and success.

Let yourself off the hook. It’s wonderful if everyone likes the curricula, finds it a bit “too easy,” and successfully moves through their work with skill. Even professional athletes repeat the same drills at age 30 that they learned in Little League—mastery relies on practice and practice is all about repetition of skills, not struggling to learn new ones all the time.

You are doing something profoundly right when you feel that whoosh of peace in your home. Pause to notice. Inhale. Then…

Exhale and smile.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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Never enough, never enough

Panning for GoldImage by Amber Strocel (cc)

I had this odd little homeschool habit. See if you can relate.

If my kids and I found something wonderful to do in a day, and if that wonderful activity wasn’t already on the calendar for a week or more prior to doing it, and if that something wonderful dawned on me out of the blue—a fresh, bright idea—and we acted on it that day (not scheduling it for a future date so that I could put it on the calendar first), I felt guilty counting that experience toward “school.”

In other words—spontaneous education felt fake (like I was getting away with something, like I was not a serious educator).

I imagined that most homeschoolers had schedules and plans and knew what was coming each week. Certainly school teachers must never lecture on the fly or succumb to inspiration of the moment rather than inspiration that led to a “plan” for some time later.

The cycle looked like this. We had our routine—the practices we usually did each day. Then I’d get internally, unconsciously fed up with the daily predictability. We’d be studying some cool topic like gems or fingerprints or Vietnam. Bam!

Let’s go to Little Saigon!

And off we’d go. Dropping everything. We’d have a fabulous, learning immersed day.

That I didn’t count.

Because it wasn’t planned.

Because I hadn’t thought about the learning values in advance; because good teachers don’t string together a bunch of inspiring moments and call that learning; because the event/activity/outing wasn’t a part of an integrated unit of study—it felt hap-hazard and too dependent on my flights of fancy.

My educational drive came from behind. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with a unit study about the the gold rush until we were knee deep in Levis and fool’s gold. I felt my way. The ideas would come as we read. How could we read about panning for gold and not pan for gold? So we abandoned all our other school work and planned a “panning for gold” party. The kids even tried to build a sluice (failed, but the effort was awesome!). The fake gold collected was traded for sarsaparilla and licorice. That party project sidelined math, science, read aloud time, and copywork for a month.

It was big and disruptive and unplanned. Not in a single one of my books. Just a moment of following this nagging thought: How can we read about the Gold Rush and not try it?

Similarly, I didn’t know what to do about the solar system and my kids—books didn’t quite get it. Small pictures about unimaginable sizes. Once we were reading, though, the scale of the numbers related to planets blew my mind (space is huge!)—I wanted to blow my kids’ minds. I called my next door homeschooling neighbor to help me. We went outside into our cul-de-sac, and attempted to replicate to scale, the space between the planets and the sun. Discovering we’d have to send the youngest child more than a mile away to approximate Pluto’s relationship to the rest of us ended that project—and made its primary point.

And eliminated math pages, phonics, and handwriting time. And nap time. And laundry.

That night, still on a solar system high, my kids and I drummed up the idea to host an impromptu planetary tea party (at night! with the stars!). Our neighbors joined us, and the oldest girl surprised us, dressing up like Jupiter! (Red blotch over her eye.)

But was this learning? I worried about it. I hadn’t made a lesson plan in advance. Were parties and field trips and impromptu experiments enough?

Back to the workbooks and planned curricula we’d go.

However, no matter how many days we logged in the workbooks and planned activities, I couldn’t tell if the kids were making the kind of progress they should be making. I had no measuring device to reassure me. Eventually we’d get bored or restless or the flu would visit and all semblance of the routine would go out the window.

After a holiday, I’d regroup and start again.

What I couldn’t know then that I do know now is that it is MORE than enough and life looks like this stitched together variety of practices, habits, and flights of inspiration. Taken together, you work your way around the circle of learning (planned activities, lessons, incremental worksheets for skills, field trips, parties, spontaneous crafts and experiments, wasted days, child-led days, parent-led days). All of it comes together.

It’s both enough, and never enough.

Learning doesn’t have an end point—you know that because you are still learning almost as much as your kids are while you educate them. Don’t you sometimes wonder how they let you out of college when you can’t remember a stitch of information about Manifest Destiny or the Pacific theater in World War 2 (and you were a history major!)?

Because of your natural home educator neuroses, you will cycle through these various educational styles over and over again, attempting to “hit” the target that keeps moving backward from you.

That’s how it is supposed to be and is. Even the least “schooly” among us are still standing by, alert, seizing those moments when they can support and honor the natural curiosity of their children.

When you feel the anxiety of “never enough” creep up, remind yourself that every day—no matter what you do—your intention is the good of your children and their educational advance. Research and buy curricula, plan amazing experiences, follow your flights of fancy, be inspired by your children’s curiosity and ambition to try things, provide resources, set up a routine…

…and trust the process.

In the end, it’s all learning and it all counts and it’s enough. Your kids will take what you give them and expand it beyond what you ever imagined. They will know how to do that because you will have modeled so many different ways to learn right in front of them for their whole lives. They’ll be comfortable with structure, freedom, exploration, testing, routine, inspiration, abstraction, practical application, curiosity, expertise, practice, performance, and achievement.

The subject areas are merely opportunities to show your kids what it is to learn through a variety of means so that they can continue that journey on their own after they leave home.

So hats off to you! On the calendar or not, it all counts. It’s enough.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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Tuesday Teatime: Three for tea

Tuesday Teatime_TiffanyI have 3 kids homeschooling right now- 2 girls ages 13 and 10 and an 8 year old boy.

I have a collection of teacups and everyone loves choosing their cup for the day. My 10 year old likes to plan the treat which has varied from peanut butter and jelly sandwich triangles to freshly baked banana bread. However simple the snack is we always set it out on pretty serving plates.

Our poetry collection at this point is mostly Shel Silverstein and they happily dive in to each choose a poem to share. At first my son was reluctant because it seemed ‘girly’ but he has had a great time and has even helped make up some of the treats.

We have had some great conversations but my favorite thing about poetry teatime is that I feel free to sit down and just enjoy a treat with my children- no guilt.


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Want to start your own Poetry Teatime? Here’s how.

Would you like your family featured on Tuesday Teatime? Email us your teatime photos with a few lines about your experience (put “Teatime” in the subject line)! If we select your photo to post then you’ll receive a free Arrow or Boomerang of your choice (once per family). Note: all submissions fall under Creative Commons licensing.

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Managing multiples

Daddy and His Little Shadow GirlsImage by Pink Sherbet Photography (Sepia tone applied cc )

Grade levels are designed for schools, not home. Children similarly aged (not necessarily similarly skilled) are put into bunches and taught by one teacher, using materials designed for that group.

Home educators typically start their journeys with grade level products. They buy the entire slate of materials for Kindergarten or First Grade. As the oldest gets older, younger kids slide into the K or 1st position. By the time the oldest is in 5th grade, there may be three or four kids who are school aged, all with individual sets of products not necessarily coordinated in any meaningful way for you, the teacher of multiples!

The question becomes: “How do I teach all these levels simultaneously?”

It’s a great question! After all, this is not a one room school house—where children are sent to be away from the home to a teacher in a separate building, while a parent at home makes meals, shops, and earns an income.

Rather, homeschooling families live in houses, condos, and apartments. They have more going on than an education. They’ve got pregnancies to contend with, toddlers and babies, all the necessities of life from food to laundry to dental appointments, and the pressure to figure out how to educate on the fly (very few home educators have any kind of training whatsoever!).

The secret to success is abandoning grade level.

Focus on subject area, not grade level.

You want all your kids learning about the same stuff together. They will automatically perform at “grade level” or according to their skill set. You can talk about Native American tribes with kids from pre-K to 10th grade. All kinds of materials and books can be gathered and used, together. DVDs, historical fiction, personal accounts from living Native Americans, studying maps, visiting burial grounds or Native American landmarks, making foods, weaving facsimiles of rugs or building replicas of their teepees and dwellings—what of this can’t be done on some level by everyone?

The goal is to create a shared family learning adventure. History and science (even literature) can, to a large extent, be studied collectively as you supply skill appropriate challenges within that context. At least everyone will be on the same page in terms of vocabulary, story, and focus. When you learn this way, students contribute to each other’s educations naturally, in conversation, through sharing their work together.

The 3 R’s (reading, writing, arithmetic) may seem like they are more grade-level bound, but that doesn’t meant you have to stretch yourself thin like a taffy-pull to get them in each day for four or more kids.

Set a time aside for when everyone does copywork. Light candles (one mom literally gives a tealight to each child-they write their name on the candle holder) and tell everyone—this is the time for copywork. You might be amazed that the youngest kids sustain a longer attention span when they are writing at the same time as the older ones. Once a week, kids can pick copywork for each other (knock knock jokes, or riddles, or favorite passages, or quotes from a favorite TV show). A sharing of the burden is possible—perhaps the older kids help the younger ones find passages that they would enjoy. Perhaps the younger ones can offer to decorate the writing of the older kids with stickers or artwork.

When you work on writing, suggest a project and have everyone contribute to it (a family letter, a collective report—each person contributing one page). Conversely, each child can work on producing writing for a family topic (subject area). They will select the kind of writing that matches their skill set, but all will focus on writing about artwork or nature or a response to a Shakespeare play.

Math can be done one at a time, if you need to teach specific concepts. But even then—it’s possible to discuss a math concept with the younger ones that the olders already know how to do. The older kids can demonstrate it in action or they might be partners during frisbee-toss skip counting. They can be asked to work with the younger child in secret and then come back to show off to you, the parent.

Reading time ought to be all together, when possible (memories get made here!). Start with the read aloud novel (whole family), followed by silent reading for older kids and reading library picture books for younger ones.

The idea is to do things together—as much as is possible. When a child needs your undivided attention, pick a time that doesn’t compete with someone else’s similar need. Put your child on the calendar with a date and time—be present. The tendency is to attempt to teach important concepts in the midst of bedlam, and then to wonder why the child isn’t making progress.

If you keep the family together for most of the day, you also build momentum. You won’t be juggling kids who are restlessly waiting for you to help them. There will be productivity happening throughout the morning and into the afternoon. Dinner time will involve talking about the immersion in WW2, rather than each child having a different area of history to discuss and no one to discuss it with!

Home education is about a culture of family learning. Drop your memories of grade level. Focus on shared subject area learning, and group projects when you can.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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Friday Freewrite: View from a window

eppnyImage by wonderwoodleyworks (cc)

Quick! Look out the nearest window and describe everything you see. Go!

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The goal of education


Your job—provide an education.

Your kid’s job—decide what to do with it.

Next year, five years from now, when he turns 18—these are not important today. Today is important.

Today’s task is to be present to today, with your kids. You can’t know how it will all turn out. You can’t decide now, for instance, that you are training your child to be an engineer simply because she’s great at Legos and math. Just because you think your child has a shot at a scholarship via viola doesn’t mean the child ought to play viola.

When we script the future of our children, we miss valuable learning opportunities today. We might focus on ensuring a set of criteria (check boxes of subjects studied) rather than seizing a moment now, right in front of us.

For instance, one mother shared at the Brave Writer retreat about a kestrel nesting box her son and husband built together. The son became so immersed in this project, he learned how to hook up video cameras for live streaming to the Internet and now a birding organization is coming to “band” the family of kestrels that live in it!

Kestrel nest building, live Internet streaming, and banding take real time away from Latin roots or grammar books or the study of ancient Greek political thought. Not only that, just because this son became a mini expert in one aspect of birding doesn’t mean he is destined for ornithology as his career choice.

The experience of caring about kestrels is quite independent of scope and sequence, college entrance requirements, and grades.

Yet it is inextricably bound up in all the elements of learning—reading, study, planning, construction, caring, pondering, mulling things over, making mistakes, correcting mistakes, anticipation, predicting, sharing results, interacting with real organizations that care about the same material (in this case, birds), and the eventual satisfaction of “mastery” or accomplishment. That meta-experience (meta—meaning, the experience as template over the actual activity) of learning is what IS the education. This child is teaching himself how to learn, he’s teaching himself about the power of invested, sustained, self-directed attention in the direction of his interests and innate powers.

What couldn’t this boy do next?

And who’s to say what that will be?

There’s no need to telescope and think that the content is what mattered here. In fact, the opposite is true. What happened in this activity is that the child moved one step closer to knowing that when he wants something, he has all the powers within to make it happen.

THAT’S the goal of education. It is not the result of most traditional educations. It IS the result of many home educations, when we pause to acknowledge and value what is happening in front of our eyes.

That said: my kids never built a single thing we could photograph and frame. It’s difficult sometimes to see what’s being built.

Maybe your kids are “building” a social network online. Maybe they are “building” a mastery of their favorite book series having read it 13 times.

Maybe they are “building” muscles and skills for soccer.

Maybe they are playing chess or Wii bowling or Settlers of Catan and within each of those games, they are discovering the power of game strategy, calculated risk, the importance of details, the ability to imagine someone else’s perspectives through the possible moves they will make…

Perhaps they use one area of interest as a means to an end in another one (our favorite example: a cookie business to pay for space camp—Jacob did this at ages 11-12). He is not involved in either baking businesses nor space now.

What did he learn? That when he wants something, the power lies within him to find the means to make it happen—as he’s demonstrated through the steady stream of scholarships and opportunities he’s created for himself in his career aim to work in international human rights.

The interest of today is tied to tomorrow’s next step by virtue of the fact that that learning is stored inside a human being. That human being compiles experiences and learning opportunities into the cluster of skills necessary to flourish in the world.

The best way to prepare your child for tomorrow is to care completely about today’s happiness and interests. You do that by smiling, asking good questions, asking for permission to participate, and narrating back to the child the skills you see emerging from the investment being made. For instance, “Your dedication to beating that video game level is impressive. You’ve been steadily focused, willing to try again after repeated defeat, and you kept your cool. Wow.”

Learning is not about getting your child to a preferred future.

Learning is about your child becoming a person who can choose a future for him or herself.

Cross-posted on facebook. Image © Pavel Semenov | Dreamstime.com

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