Archive for the ‘Help for High School’ Category

Writing with Teens: Don’t miss these 5 blog posts

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Time Capsule_Writing with Teens

2015 marks the 10th anniversary for the Brave Writer blog, and to celebrate we’re revisiting helpful posts from the past.

These five address writing with teens:

Writing Starts Off the Page: Saturation and Incubation

You don’t want to ask for writing before your kids are good and ready to spill over onto the page. All of those writing books that give your kids topics are a waste of time (unless you happen to be one of the lucky ones with a child who loves to write and just needs a gentle nudge and away she goes!). Topics don’t generate writing. Having something to say does…

Writing with Teens: How to Begin

Without an essay guide, you might feel you can’t even begin to teach your students to write them. Hogwash. Let’s look at some ways that you can start essay training right now…

Essays: Not Just a Gateway to College

The word essay means “to try.” It comes from the Latin root. (In French, the word “essayer” is the verb “to try, to attempt.”) I think it helps to remember that an essay is an attempt, it’s your “best shot” at looking at the materials and giving a reaction (sometimes a strong opinion, sometimes an exploration of the issues, sometimes how that material relates to your life and background, your experiences and beliefs)…

Brave Writer’s Guide to Writing for Exams

I remind students to make a plan, follow the plan and stick to the plan because initially it is tempting to run off after some mental flurry of activity and think that is the same as good writing. It usually isn’t. Clarity and organization trump flights of fancy in timed assessment essay writing…

Why Academic Writing Doesn’t Come Naturally

Essay writing is like learning a brand new sport while playing the game. There are steps to take that make the process less daunting and that will prepare your kids to be successful with less stress. The actual format itself is not difficult to teach or understand. Learning how to bend the essay to the writer’s purpose, to make the essay form work for the writer instead of against him is something all together different…


Also, check out Brave Writer’s Help for High School. It’s a self-directed writing program for teens that both teaches rhetorical thinking in writing, as well as the academic essay formats for high school and college.

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Your teen has interesting thoughts

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

38 / 365 - Life on Azeroth

…even if they are thoughts you have never thought to think!

Sometimes a parent will tell me that their child doesn’t have any interests or passions and that that is the problem. The parents can’t detect the interests of their children to support them in growing those interests.

Let’s back up. Ask yourself first: what thoughts is my child having? What does my child think about?

Do you even know?

At least 12 hours of the day, all of us spend energy thinking—about stuff. These thoughts range from regular, “quotidienne” (daily) stuff like, “I’m starved. I wonder when I can eat lunch” to our aspirations, “Gawd, I hope she texts me back.”

These thoughts take energy and some of them dominate our minds for hours/days at a time.

Your teen “without the interests” is thinking during all those hours of the day, just like your teen “with a passion” is. However, the thoughts of the “teen who seems not to have an interest” are invisible to you. That’s because you don’t know to ask about them. You are looking for evidence of thoughts that you understand, care about, and admire.

If you saw your child playing chess every day, even if you weren’t a chess player, your bearing would show pride and approval. You value chess. You think chess proves intelligence.

Kids pick this up. They know which of their thoughts are “permitted” to be shared, and which must remain “privately” thought.

For instance, if you have a child who is thinking a lot about how to beat the next level of Halo (video game), that pattern of thought is taking up the hours in the day. Halo is the interest. Halo may even be the passion.

For me, a grown woman who never played a video game in her life as a child, Halo is invisible to me. The thoughts about it, the vocabulary that goes with it, the anxieties that attend it, the enthusiasms and achievements that spring from it—I have no way to appreciate, care about, or express curiosity for that world. I mostly ignore it. I literally don’t hear the words the child says when he is talking about it. My mind drifts and eventually it never comes up any more.

As a result, this precious child of mine exists in a privately created world. When asked about his passions, he’s already picked up that the family culture doesn’t see “Halo” as a valid interest or passion so he says he doesn’t have any. But it’s not true, right? He has an “illegal” interest.

Let me interject a little story.

When Liam was in high school, he was a huge Warcraft fan. He played many hours a day. One day I was working on my computer when he called out to me, “Mom I just got to this really high level. In fact, my team is so good gamers in Korea are watching us online.”

I nodded a vague, “Uh huh. Good Liam”—never raising my eyes.

Then he said more loudly, “MOM! Come over here. You don’t understand this but I want to show you. This is a really big deal and I need you to get it.”

Wow! He was right. I didn’t get that I didn’t get it until that moment. I went to his computer and for the next hour he explained to me how difficult it was to rise to this level. He showed me his wins and losses, his teammates, and how the game was played and watched halfway around the world.

It was a moment.

It was so easy to approve of kids who were writing college applications and earning scholarships. It was easy to root for kids who were playing lacrosse or soccer. I could applaud wildly when my older kids performed in Shakespeare plays.

Yet here was Liam, brilliant of course, living in a privately-nourished world of skill and community invisible to all of us, unvalued by most of us in the family, but in particular, his mother—me.

Our job as parents isn’t to determine in advance what we want our kids to care about. Our job is to care about our kids—in all their varied complexity. Your kids can learn everything they need to learn about learning through the stuff that fills their minds right now. We have to choose not to filter their lives through our own value set (rendering what they care about invisible to us).

You want your child to care about spelling? Why not be curious about how the gaming community sees spelling? Is it important? What does it say about a gamer when he is typing his thoughts and they are misspelled? Are there games that are known for being crummy games because the writing about the game is poorly edited? Or does it even matter?

You want your child to be a good thinker? Find out how he uses his mind for his interests. Ask: What is your strategy when you play solo versus when you play on a team? How do you decide who the leader of the team is? Are you ever? Do you want to be? Why or why not? Are you ever troubled by the shooting? Why or why not? How do you decide one game is well made and another isn’t?

The goal of education isn’t to get your kids to like subjects you consider worthy of attention.

The goal of education is to help kids discover how their brains work—so that they can use that brain for anything they choose for their lives.

Subject area information is important insofar as it advances a child’s ability to function successfully in adult life. We can get there by many means, and the chief one ought to be engaging the active mind life that is already busy and curious no matter what is happening between the ears.

Go forth and be curious about your amazing kids!

Cross-posted on facebook. Image by Kelly Hunter (cc)

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It’s that time of year

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Our oldest granddaughter's latest art projectImage by Robert Huffstutter

You put together a portfolio of the year’s school work and share it with an evaluator of some kind. In Ohio, for instance, we meet with a certified teacher who will vouch for the fact that each child has “gone up a grade level” based on pawing through whatever materials I’ve cobbled together to share with her. In some homes, that “evaluator” turns out to be the other curious parent who would like to know what the heck you’ve been doing all day every day. It may be your anxiety checking in to make sure you didn’t waste an entire year because you were pregnant for half of it.

The year-end gaze back through ten months of education is powerful in aiding you for the next year (I recommend it!) whether or not you need to provide an official portfolio for evaluation by the state representative.

Here are my tips, gleaned from over a decade of that practice.

1. Enjoy year-end evaluations. This is your chance to review your year with your kids. You’ll be surprised to discover that you did a whole lot more than your guilt allowed you to recall in the middle of the night.

2. Be patient as you hunt through the house for evidence that your children got an education. You aren’t only looking for papers with handwriting on them. You might see a framed Van Gogh print on the wall and remember discussing it over breakfast. Grab it. Bring it to the pile of “stuff” (I’ll tell you what to do with it in a minute). The bird feeders in the backyard and the binoculars should join you at the table too. The box of dress up clothes might yield another memory of the kids acting out Colonial USA story-lines from books you read to them in the fall. Page through, scroll through your calendar to remind yourself of field trips (which include going to the movies to see “Frozen,” the walk through the Asian food section of your local market where you picked out the starfruit to try for teatime, the night walk to listen for owls, and the surprise visit to Daddy’s work place). Make a list with dates. Scroll through the iPhoto files as well to remind yourself of activities you are now forgetting. You can print photos and mount them on paper, adding them to the collection of items you will share with your evaluator.

3. Gather the papers too, though. If you aren’t a notebooker (I was for some years, not so much others), you’ll have a collection of the student’s work. You can select samples for the portfolio. Pick pages written in all three seasons (fall, winter, and spring) to show progress. If you don’t have notebooks to help you, the search may require help from the kidlets. Papers get tucked into every corner of the house (under couches, in dresser drawers, in the art room, smashed in the textbook). The goal is to create a representative sample for the evaluator, not an exhaustive (and exhausting) one. 4-5 pages per subject per child is plenty (unless otherwise instructed).

4. Provide a written narrative of the child’s progress in any subject, particularly those without a paper trail. Let’s say that you spent the year learning about art history, but no one journaled about it, no one wrote a little essay about it, no one put on dress up clothes and acted out a painting. How can you show the evaluator that you studied art? Write it up yourself. Narrate what you did, like this: “This past year, we studied art history. Noah, age 9, became fascinated with Paul Klee’s work. We enjoyed these paintings (include titles). Noah’s primary interest in Klee’s work were the whimsical figures. We saw Klee’s paintings several times at these museums. One time Noah said to me, “…….” (You might ask Noah on the spot for a quote, if you can’t remember. Ask naturally, so that he isn’t resistant, “Remember when we studied that painting by Paul Klee that had the X in it? What did you like about it? Do you remember?”).” Your written narrative should take a few paragraphs. Tell it all, in story form.

The written narrative can incorporate all the children, or it can be specific to one child. If a child is working on math, but doing it all with manipulatives and without text books, write about the processes that were mastered and by what tools. The written narrative is also a wonderful way to record the progress of a child that you can use next year for yourself to see how far that child has come (we all have educational amnesia and forget that our kids ever learned a single thing…every year).

Bring a reading list too (books you read to the kids, books the kids read themselves—multiple readings count!). You’ll be amazed at how many words your kids read or heard read in one year. Truly impressive.

5. Bring books, posters, and tools to the evaluation. I used to put everything in a couple of crates and haul it all into Lisa’s living room. Then I’d play show and tell—one child at a time, or sometimes all at once as I covered a subject at a time. I’d pull out the globe and discuss which countries we studied and how. I’d show Lisa our math manipulatives, I’d lay out the calendar that had our bird feeder watch schedule on it and the tallies we made, and I’d put the completed writing projects on the coffee table in a row so she could see how cool they were.

If you bring big stuff and quality projects with you, there will be no need to have volume. You don’t need workbooks filled with words if there is an impressive homemade Egyptian embalming products five page mail order catalog in full color with hand drawn figures and descriptions spiral bound from Staples. Science can be demonstrated through photos of the baking soda volcanoes and the Blood and Guts projects (affiliate link). Do not be seduced by the idea that your year end needs to be demonstrated through paper alone.

6. Going up a grade level is an arbitrary judgment made by the evaluator. Some kids will leap forward in one subject and stagnate (if there is such a thing when growing and learning) in another. Your goal isn’t to convince the evaluator of what you think it means to go up a grade level. Your job is to represent your year. If your kids were active in all the subjects and you can demonstrate investment and a conscientious attitude about learning, the state would have no reason whatsoever to rule that you have failed in your task. If a child is remedial, the only responsibility you have is to show that the child, while not up to grade level in reading or writing or whatever subject, is making progress (in the sense that the child is being given the opportunity to work on that subject with you in a deliberate manner).

7. Find an evaluator who is sympathetic to your style of homeschooling. Some evaluators are known for having an understanding of unschooling, relaxed or eclectic schooling, and some are not. It helps to find an evaluator who homeschools herself or who has been doing it a while. If you go to one that you don’t like, do not ever go back, ever. Find someone else. You do not need the stress of worrying about how that evaluator will think about what you are doing during the year, while you’re doing it. There are plenty of wonderful evaluators who understand homeschooling and aren’t simply looking for a stack of text books from A Beka.

8. Evaluators are skilled in education, usually. Bring your concerns about a child too. Ask for advice on curricula, praxis, and realistic expectations. You’re paying for their expert status—get some bang for your buck!

9. Finally, trust. Trust the process. I came to love year-end evaluations. They gave me a chance to reflect on my year, to appreciate how much my family did together, and to discover which subjects I wanted to address in the coming year in new ways. I also liked having someone approve of me—giving me the “atta girl” that is absent most of the year when your work is largely invisible to everyone else in the entire world.

I have been told by a couple of moms that they do a year-end show-and-tell in their homes for their kids (fabulous idea, I wish I had thought of). Each child collects his or her work and projects and creates a space on a table or in the house to display what they did that year. Yummy treats and delicious drinks are provided. Everyone in the family walks through to appreciate each child’s work. (A great way to include local skeptical grandparents and aunts and uncles too.)

And now your turn. Any advice about end-of-the-year evaluations?

Cross-posted on facebook.

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Make progress: One-thing tips for teens

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Image by Andrea D

You feel better when you get stuff done follow-up tips for high school.

Here’s a list of “one things” your teen can do to turn the day around:

Read (anything, everything—websites, books, articles, instructions for how to play…, song lyrics, discussion boards, comic books).

Contribute online to a discussion.

Have a conversation with a sibling.

Solve a problem (math, plumbing, gaming, the wobbly table, the broken blind, detangling a younger sister’s hair, mediate an argument).

Write one poem.

Study one lyric.

Watch one film.

Plan one outing.

Make a plan for next week that gets the teen out of the house.

Go for a run.

Make one date with a friend for coffee and a movie.

Explain one historical event and the persons involved.

Discuss one social issue (both sides).

Identify a theme in one author’s work and talk about it.

Investigate the answer to one question. Report back.

Play one challenging board game.

Study foreign language vocabulary for one hour.

Learn one new scientific principle.

Find one country on the globe that you have never heard of: identify its language, location, political system, and significance on the world stage.

Look up the requirements for one college of the teen’s choice.

Look up the requirements for one career field of interest.

Apply for one job.

Redecorate the teen bedroom.

Work at the most challenging subject matter for one hour.

Learn one new skill—painting walls, quilting, gardening, programming, writing java, cooking or baking…

Start a business. Sell cookies to neighbors, mow lawns, do light housekeeping, tutor math or reading or writing, restring tennis rackets…

Prepare for one section of the SAT/ACT.

Surf, ski, longboard, throw a frisbee, golf, swim, cartwheel, bounce on a trampoline, throw a baseball, hike.

Play one game of chess.

Start a blog or tumblr.


Take one picture and post to Instagram.

Make one to do list… then “to do” it.

You may need to post this list so that the teen has something to look at when boredom inevitably sets in.

Good luck!

Cross-posted on facebook.

Image by Brave Writer mom, Andrea (cc)

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Brave Writer spotlight: Douglas Henningsen

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

Hardcover book gutter and pagesImage by Horia Varlan

From Brave Writer mom, Kellie:

Hi Julie – I had to share what my almost 14 year old son [Douglas] wrote for the first assignment in the Help for High School curriculum. I had my co-op class do this assignment in class and gave them about 12 minutes as we were a little crunched on time. I wanted a list of random words to do with the topic he chose, “reading a novel” but he came up with the following instead and to me it’s beautiful and poetic. He is now going to do the second stage of this assignment and write a paragraph using your instructions but I told him we are going to keep the list “as is” so he’ll have two completed works as I find this to be so unique.

Reading at night
Warmth, comfort, pillow against my back.
Book waits.
Read the cover
Open book
Book opens to me
Swallows me whole
The scene flashes in my eyes
Characters are struggling
Heart pounding
trying to help
in the story
everything on the tip of a knife
the knife is flying at your face
keep reading
heartache when its over
but it’s not
get next book
open the cover
start again
reading more than once
picturing the scenes
the video keeps playing
the rollercoaster starts
we start the incline
its building up
reading on
clock hits 10:00
keep on reading
the final scene
tears in my eye
white knuckles clutch the book
sweat on my brow
I don’t want it to end
Why does it have to end
Clock hits 11:00
Someone dies
Pain in my heart
The pain of her brother
The same pain is mine
Sorrow fills my heart
The page rustles
The smooth paper flips by
The fight goes on
I can feel it
In my heart
Tears fill my eyes
But its ok
I can keep going
I close the book
Its over
I read the back
I put it down and close my eyes
And there it is
I can see it again
In my head
But this time I know how it ends
This time I wont be scared
This time its ok
Then it starts again
I visit it in my dreams
I drop out of consciousness
And open the cover.

[Below] is the second part of the assignment. I’m not sure he learned how to write an anecdote as it’s several paragraphs. But I like the paper. Smile Kellie

The Crying Book
by Douglas Henningsen

Open the book. Three simple words strung together, that’s what they are. But under them is a deeper meaning. These three words speak of a gateway to a whirlwind of emotion, adventure, heartache and satisfaction. And that is exactly the gateway I am going to fall through tonight. I climb the ladder to my bunk and sink down into the multitude of blankets and pillows I keep up there. I plump a pillow and lean back on it, pulling the blanket over my legs. There it sits, the long awaited book, nestled on my lap, calling for me to open it up. Well, don’t mind if I do. I rub my hands together and pick up the hardcover novel. I read the cover, savoring the moment, and then I open it to the first page.

The chapter begins, and with it the movie. The book swallows me whole and poof, there I am, right in the story. I walk around the characters as the chapter runs to a close, then follow them as another starts. Excitement blossoms in my chest and anticipation clutches at my heart. The characters are struggling, I try to help, but they can’t hear me. My heart pounds, emotion floods my senses. I’m nervous and scared. Everything is balanced on the edge of a knife, and that knife is flying straight for my face. I keep reading. Love and pain speed by me, spreading their fingers and brushing delicately over my heart, spreading their emotions before they are gone. It’s over, but it’s not. I reach behind me and pull out the next book. I glance at the clock, 9:30, before plunging back into a world I so desperately want to survive.

The video starts again. The climax of the book is coming, the story that was woven through so many books is about to end. Everything hangs in the balance. The clock hits 10:00, but I keep reading. The final scene, the great story is almost over. My white knuckles clutch the book, making nervous indentations on the paper. Then someone dies. With tears in my eyes I flip the page; it’s not supposed to end this way. I can feel her brother’s pain; it burns my heart, the same heart that has been tossed aboard a fragile dory in a wild sea of emotion. I can’t take much more. Sorrow invades my heart cloaking it in a dark shadow of sadness. The smooth paper flips by my face, wiping a tear away from my eye, I keep reading.

The fight rages on, the battle of good and evil, I can feel the rage of war in my heart, my poor, battered heart. It’s over. Good has triumphed, evil is defeated. A tear runs down my face as I close the book, falling onto the hard back. The tear trickles to the edge of the back, and it almost looks like the book is crying with me. I go to wipe the tear away but my hand stops before it touches the back, then I pull it back to my side. I leave the tear to dry, a glistening trail of water that tells of the emotion packed inside of the cover. I look at the clock, 11:00, time for bed. I reverently lay the book down, and turn off my light. I lie back against my pillow, and close my eyes.

There it is, the book, it’s still with me, playing over and over in my head. But this time it’s ok. This time I know how it ends. This time I don’t have to be afraid. This time the pain doesn’t dig as deep. I drop out of consciousness, and open the cover.

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What is enough for high school?

Monday, October 7th, 2013

On a pink, green, and white cloud, two young women reading a book at Greenlake, with a daisy chain in a field of flowers, Seattle, Washington, USAImage by Wonderlane

Can you keep having tea parties and going to art museums when your kids hit the age where “it all counts”? Will your college-bound teen be prepared enough if you continue to use the Brave Writer Lifestyle as your guide for language arts and writing instruction?

Or as one parent asked me, “I’ve loved Brave Writer for my child’s younger years, but what writing program would you recommend now that my student needs to get ‘serious’ about writing?” Ouch!

The foundation you lay in your child’s younger years is critical to who your child writers will be in their teens and beyond. There’s no “un-bridgeable chasm” between limericks, lists, and letters, and the academic formats like the expository essay and research paper. Literally, the writing your kids do now (or when young) IS the training for the writing they do as teens and beyond.

Let’s look at speech again. You don’t expect a fluent five year old to lead a business sales meeting, to give a speech or to make a Power Point presentation. On the other hand, all that talking and expressing, the poems recited, the manners learned for introductions and the telephone, the oral reports done in a co-op class—these do all lead the child to eventually have the capacity to learn how to teach or present or speech-ify.

As you head into the white water rapids of high school, remind yourself that the strategies you’ve used up until then will be your best aids for growth in the college-prep years. What are those strategies? Let me remind you, so you can affirm them to yourself.

Reading quality writing. In high school, reading should include non-fiction titles, essays, editorials, reviews, poetry, short stories, both American and British lit, classic and popular novels, and the whole world of online options (discussion forums, chat rooms, blogs, news sites, etc.).

Freewriting. Use freewriting techniques to explore the developing rhetorical imagination of your student. Rather than writing about any old thing, introduce your kids to freewriting about ideas—how they form their ideas, what those ideas mean to them, what the “other side” thinks about those ideas, and how your students react to the opposing point of view.

Brave Writer Lifestyle Items. Keep art, music, novels, movies, nature, and poetry going. In their teens, though, students will find specialities (their favorites), and will be able to delve deeply into the ones they love. Your teens ought to become “obsessive fans” of LOTR or Korean pop music or Chihuly blown glass or spoken word poetry or Scott Orson novels or birding expert Pete Dunne or Shakespeare plays. Let them! This is how teenagers discover the other layer of the subject area – the critics, the fans, the influences from other artists/scientists in the field. This is how they discover the academic task: bringing their perspective to bear on the established field as they develop intimacy with the topic and its field of experts. This is what they will do in college, in fact! But they will apply this skill set to sociology, anthropology, mathematics, and political science.

What will you add to this mix in high school?

Some intentionality is necessary. Good news. Your kids are ready for it! They need two things from you in high school: Freedom to risk, opportunities for adventure.

Risk and adventure can be experienced in both activity (taking a trip to Mexico to work in an orphanage) and thought (examining theories of gaming). Both are necessary. Teens want to prove to themselves that they will be adults one day. They can’t *know it* on the inside until they have evidence on the outside. They don’t know it by staying in the same living room they’ve been in since birth, with the same people, reading parent-selected material, following a routine of workbooks and text books.

They discover that they are capable of leaving home and family when they have some experiences that test them—that require them to act independently, and that encourage them to think “new-to-them” thoughts.

In writing, that means that they will need preparation for academic writing. They will want to understand how the writing they’ve done in the previous years relates to this new standard in writing. (Some programs treat writing from the younger years as though it has no relevance to the next level of writing, which is tragic.)

In Brave Writer, we’ve designed Help for High School and all of our online writing classes for teens with this goal in mind—showing teens how what they’ve been doing relates to what they are being called on to do now. These classes help them to learn how to think rhetorically, how to examine argument, and how to select credible support for their thesis statements. They also learn the vocabulary of expository writing—terminology for analysis, how to form substantive opinions, and how to manage their biases and blind spots. They learn the formats so they have practice using them.

Teens can take classes in local high schools or community colleges, too. They should be encouraged to sign up for the local Shakespeare Company as actors (something my kids did), or to join a marching band, or to travel with a show choir, or to play high level sports. They need to get out into the community in their areas of interest so that they can find out that they have what it takes to stand on their own two feet, to prove to themselves that they are growing up.

Between specific instruction in academic writing and exploration of a variety of subjects (fashion, linguistics, music, role playing games, gun control, feminism, theology, nutrition, sexuality, animation, computer programming, sports, foreign language, organic gardening…whatever your kids find interesting), your teens will become prepared for college. College is a depth experience in specific liberal arts and sciences fields. Deep diving IS the right preparation for that world. That’s why homeschoolers do well in college! They already understand how to teach themselves, how to read critically, how to develop and form a legitimate opinion (as long as they have the chance to do those things as teens).

So keep doing what you’re doing, and add a little intentionality in high school, and your kids will be fine!

Questions? Feel free to post them here.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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I wish you could grade college papers

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

like I do…

Essay-writing, not Lecture-giving

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Today’s writing tip:

As I comment on essay topics in the Brave Writer Classroom, I’m struck by context. It’s easy to get sidetracked into “advice-giving” rather than “essay-writing.” There’s a difference between explaining why you, the reader, should exercise, versus explaining the role of exercise in improved health. Many of our kids are used to lectures, sermons, and mini-lessons designed to urge them to be better people. They internalize this voice and then they mimic it in their essays. But that kind of writing is *not* appropriate for essay writing. Essays are the dispassionate explication of information and how various strands of detail correlate to prove a thesis—a risky proposition, an assertion.

If your student writes about what the reader should do, or directs any comments at the second person, “you,” know that that student has shifted from essay writing to sermon giving. Even without the “you,” if implicit in the writing is a list of “smart practices” or “good ideas,” know that your student is not writing an essay.

We had a question on Facebook:

Any specific tips for redirecting them to essay writing?

My answer:

Yes. Ask them to change the voice of the essay: Move from “you” to third person. Focus on content, not on practice. For instance, in the example of exercise:

Don’t write—

People should work out three to five times per week to get their hearts to beat faster. You won’t be as vulnerable to heart disease if you do cardiovascular exercise on a regular basis.


Regular cardiovascular exercise has been shown to prevent heart disease. People who work out three to five times per week reduce their chances of heart disease by X%.

See the difference in tone? Feel it? That’s what you’re going for.

Vocabulary development

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

The fashion plate The quickest way to grow as an educated person is to master the vocabulary of a particular field. That really is what we mean when we say someone is “educated.” They know the verbiage that goes with that field. They know the people who comment and write about it, they know the critical players in the field (whatever field of expertise they are in – inventors or football stars!), and they know especially the language of the specific domain.

For instance, your kids are often expert in a particular video or computer game. When they talk about it, don’t you feel bored and a little out of your depth? That’s because your kids are experts and you are a mere out-of-date novice! On the other hand, your knowledge of a particular area (birth? tennis? art history? literature? gardening?) trumps your kids’ I’m sure!

The point is this—growth as an educated person is all about mastery of language and how it relates to a specific field. The more you read, the more nuances you’ll master. It’s one thing to say: “What a pretty night sky” (a novice’s appraisal) and another to say, “There’s Cassiopeia! It’s a constellation in the northern sky, named after the queen Cassiopeia from Greek mythology. You can recognize it by its unique “W” shape and how it’s formed by five bright stars. See it?”

The tendency in homeschool is to over-value “academic” vocabulary and to under-appreciate the vocabulary your children naturally acquire in their areas of “common” interest. For instance, you want to claim “genius status” for the kid who loves astronomy, but you overlook the child whose enthusiasm for fashion makes her an expert in fabrics, necklines, and designers. Yet the exact same set of skills goes into “expertise” for both. Both of these fields offer your child the opportunity to deepen a vocabulary around a particular field of interest. Knowing the language, the insider-jargon, the methods for evaluation for whatever research is being done, the successes and failures in the field, the “celebrated persons,” the career opportunities that go with that field—all of these lead to a level of competence in that subject domain that empowers your child to be “smart.” The mastery of a particular area of interest leads to the ability to replicate this style of inquiry for other areas later in life (both personal interest and academic).

Not only that, you can use your child’s natural interests now, for spelling, grammar, writing style, and exploration in a way you can’t conjure through bored children being dragged through history or science that doesn’t engage them.

When Caitrin spent several years deeply invested in fashion, we made spelling lists of words that were particular to that field. (See photo above.) Words like couture, stilettos, boutique, sleeveless.

She kept a daily blog for a year writing about fashion and modeling her individual outfits each day.

We watched Project Runway with religious regularity.

We took a trip to Chicago to see the stores of designers she had studied in her magazine subscriptions (Vogue, Elle, etc.).

She acquired a vocabulary far superior to mine in that arena and we used her passion for that field to learn about how you take a subject area deeper. She is less interested in fashion today. Her particular hobbies this last year have ranged from WWI to Korean Pop Music! But as she focuses on what she loves, she finds the names, ideas, and language that go with those subject areas because she knows (instinctively) that that’s how you demonstrate intelligence, and credibility when you talk about any subject.

Try it! You’ll like it.


Tips for the College Application Essay

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

College Essay Notes

From How to Write a Winning College Essay Application
By, Michael James Mason

(Highly recommend buying a copy of this book)

Five elements of a good college essay:

1. Something to grab the reader’s attention
2. Simplicity
3. Realism
4. Sincerity
5. Surprise

As you craft your personal essay, think about the questions and statements below to prompt you. Fit the content to the question your chosen university asks you.

1. Who are the five people who have most influenced you?

2. What do you read?

3. List three virtues that you admire and respect.

4. Discuss three significant lessons you have learned.

5. Tell us about three memorable experiences you have had.

6. Discuss a failure that taught you something.

7. Respond to three quotes that mean something to you.

8. Remember your greatest success.

9. Name five things that you know.

10. Discuss your definition of happiness.

11. What do your parents remember about you?

12. What are your earliest memories?

13. What is an education supposed to provide?

14. List and describe five special things about you.

15. What is your “one sentence philosophy of life”?

16. What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you?

17. What makes the world go round?

18. Picture five places you’ve been that impressed you the most.

19. What is your favorite social activity?

20. What is your favorite intellectual or artistic activity?

21. Describe yourself to a stranger.

22. Tell the story of a fear you conquered.

23. Discuss three goals that you have in life.

24. List ten things you like and ten things you don’t like at all.

25. What do your friends say that they like most about you?

26. What question have you always wanted answered and why?