Personal ponderings from a natural night-owl!

Archive for May, 2012

Owning It

“I could never, EVER home-school.”

“I don’t home-school; I school at home.”

“I’m not the teacher, I’m the learning coach.”

I am embarrassed to admit that all of those statements have come out of my mouth in the past 12 months. They are also untrue.

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One of the aspects of online public school that reinforced by folks associated with it is the need to NOT refer to it as “home-schooling.” Because you see, the state of Ohio will pay for online public school, but NOT for home-schooling. I was totally cool with that because *I* could never home-school. I was not “that kind” of parent. I am NOT a teacher and among my entire family of formally trained educators, I am certainly no expert on education.

Early on in our online public school experiment, Zac Chase (a teacher formerly employed at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy) insisted that I was, in fact, my child’s teacher. He suggested – almost insisted – that I own that particular role. I resisted – vehemently at times, arm outstretched and hand up – but no more.

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I AM a teacher! (There – I said it! Whew!) The state might not recognize me as one professionally, but that doesn’t negate my role. More importantly, it doesn’t even mean I am inexperienced or bad at what I do. In the same way, being certified by the state to teach doesn’t mean someone is experienced or good at that profession.

What is a teacher? We all know the stereotype: a matronly woman with a bun and a prim skirt, glasses perched on her nose, lecturing with little emotion to bored students. Sadly, we’ve probably all experienced some version of that hell less-than-optimal learning situation. But by-God if the state says that woman is certified, then she must be a teacher, right?

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Think of the best teacher you’ve ever had.

I hope you’ve had many. I know I have. Among them Mr. Leigh and Mr. Shumaker jump to mind (probably because they’ve both passed away in the last year). What made them true teachers in every sense, these men who were state certified in their respective areas of expertise?

First, they had a true passion for their subjects. Mr. Leigh truly LOVED math! Most sane high school kids do NOT love math, but we all took notice and were even fascinated by his obsession with it. Mr. Leigh could get worked up about the importance of a decimal point or the beauty of an algebraic equation to such a degree that we students would laugh at him. Mr. Shumaker, on the other hand, LOVED English. He was so passionate that he would jump up on top of a desk to make a point – literally. No matter your feelings on English, you did not – could not – fall asleep in Harvey’s class.

These exemplary teachers also cared about their students as people. They cared so much that they refused to accept failure. They pushed us, as individuals, further than we could even imagine being pushed – and they knew we could do it even when we doubted it ourselves. They respected us as the young adults we weren’t but yearned to be, looked with skeptical eye – oh, that arched eyebrow – on our immature excuses for not working to our potential, and gave us the grades we earned instead of the grades we wanted.

This leads to the third characteristics the best teachers shared: we were afraid of them and sometimes, yes, we even hated them. Oh yes, we did. I hated both those teachers with a passion when I had them. They made me struggle. They made me cry in frustration over homework, papers. They made me wish I were anywhere but in their classes at times. When I emerged bruised, battered, and better I didn’t realize the extent of their gifts to me. That revelation would take years to manifest.

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My daughter’s composition “teacher” at the online public school we are trying this year went half of this school year without ever seeing one example of her writing. “How,” my husband asked, “can she possibly assess Emily’s ability without ever ONCE seeing how she actually writes?” When we raised the question at the parent-teacher conference, we were invited to submit writing samples via email each week. Emily was excited – someone new to give her feedback on her work! But the comments took at least a week to come back and they were paltry. “Good job.” “Nice work.” In the whole batch there was only one single constructive comment. One.

Meanwhile, I would insist on writing, revising, re-writing, and re-revising. *My* teacher comments were more along the lines of “can you use stronger verb choices to paint a more descriptive picture here?” and “Can you employ more words of emotion to connect your audience to what you were FEELING in this personal narrative?” Emily enjoyed the compliments from her OHVA teacher, but even she quickly saw that they weren’t going to improve her writing like my constructive criticisms were.

I love the challenge of writing, even though I don’t do it professionally. I have a passion for grammar, word choice, and sometimes (thanks to Mr. Shumaker) the avoidance of passive verbs. My daughter writes better than most 7th graders, but that doesn’t mean she has no progress to make in her writing. I care enough to push her to excel and some days, she HATES it! I don’t know if she’ll look back on me as a good teacher, but I do hope that someday she’ll be grateful that I don’t let her slack. I have too much respect for her abilities to let that happen.

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This past Monday, I was working hard to get some good-weather-dependent work done outside and in our sunroom. When Emily had a question about genetics, I inwardly groaned. That had NOT been my best subject in high school biology. Instead of really digging into the material, I told her – for the first time all year – to just go call her teacher. (OHVA is a public online school, so she actually has four state certified teachers who do online synchronous classes and are available for questions). Later that afternoon, we got an email saying that genetics was an 8th grade topic, so Emily should come to the science tutoring session the following evening where there would be an 8th grade teacher who could help her. What? If it’s in the 7th grade science course, which we are required by law to complete at 90%, shouldn’t the 7th grade science teacher be able to help? And aren’t 7th grade science teachers certified by the state to teach either 7th or 8th grade science?

I was still too lazy to reacquaint myself with Mr. Mandel and his peas, so we BOTH attended the session, which ended up being a synchronous one-on-one. The 8th grade science teacher admitted pretty quickly that she was not familiar with the specific lesson we were doing. (Um…ok.) In reading through some text on the screen which we could all see, she read the word “dominant” as “dormant.” I raised an eyebrow, but figured it was an honest mistake…until she did it again. I may be rusty on my biology, but even *I* know that dormant has to do with seeds and dominant with genetic traits.

In the end, Emily’s question was really one of mathematics and experimentation procedure more than genetics. Participating in the help session did nothing for Emily, but did force *me* to sit down and work out just where Emily’s problem was and how I could help her understand the material. Isn’t that one of the roles of a teacher? Just who WAS the teacher in this scenario – and in the composition scenario above?

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It seems appropriate that this year, Mothers’ Day comes at the end of Teacher Appreciation week. Save for the obligatory public hat-tip today, I’m not likely to get any recognition outside my family for either role. Nonetheless, each role was carefully and deliberately chosen. I own them both and hope I can live up to the bar set in both cases by those who came before me.

The Merry Month of May at OHVA

Where has this school year gone?! I had intended to blog more regularly and faithfully about our journey this year with online public school through Ohio Virtual Academy (OHVA), but you know what “they” say about good intentions!

Let me briefly catch you up to where we are at this point, with 5 weeks left in our school year, from my last blog post in (blush) October. Early in October, Emily took OHVA’s Scantron assessment. This was an adaptive assessment, meaning the subsequent questions change depending on how you answer earlier ones. The questions get progressively harder and the kids are not SUPPOSED to know how to answer all the questions. In this way, the software can determine at what grade level you are actually working. Emily’s language arts score came back literally off the charts, placing her at a high 12th grade level in language arts – which shocked even me.

By mid-December, Emily was still EXTREMELY motivated for school – to the point where she didn’t want to stop for Christmas break! By break (which I did force her to take), she had spent an average of over 6 hours per school day in the actual curriculum – of her own free will. She was BLAZING through her language arts curriculum. In fact, she completed her year’s worth of vocabulary and much of her grammar mechanics and usage curriculum. We discovered that she could do a week’s worth of vocabulary in about an hour! Because she is so advanced in this area, it was a relief to her not to be slowed down by other kids or by the system. The freedom she felt to move at her own pace was a breath of fresh air for her.

Coming back from break in January was hard; Emily couldn’t seem to regain her motivation. We had some bumps in our schooling-at-home road (which I will detail in another blog post). But we kept at it and by the end of March, Emily had completed 100% of her 7th grade pre-algebra curriculum and 100% of her literature, composition, grammar, and vocabulary curriculum. This made her eligible to receive and start working on the 8th grade curriculum right away after spring break and positioned her to be able to take both algebra and LAC (literary analysis and composition) this coming fall on the high school platform for high school credit.

The state of Ohio requires completion of a minimum of 920 instructional hours and 90% of the curriculum in each academic subject by the end of the school year (June 8th) to have completed the grade. Some subjects, like music and art, must only be completed to 30%, but that won’t be an issue for us. Any core academic subject not completed to 90% can still be worked on over the summer, but the hours cannot be counted toward the state minimum of 920 which must be achieved by June 8th. As of today, Emily is 96% done with Spanish I, 91% done with Art, 78% of the way through science and 70% of the way through history. She also continues to work on physical education hours (bowling, ice skating lessons, swimming), music hours (private piano lessons), and 8th grade algebra and LAC (which she is not required to complete). She has accumulated 1045 hours over 167 days, averaging 6.3 hours of educational time per school day.

In hindsight, moving to OHVA was absolutely the best choice we could have made this school year. It was not all sunshine and roses by any means, so stay tuned for a future blog post about the pros and cons of our experience. But if I could go back and do it all again, I would not only come back to OHVA again, but I would have made the move in 5th grade.

Emily has decided to remain in OHVA for another school year. She is undecided about what she will do for high school. Her choices are to stay with OHVA, to apply through open enrollment to Firestone High School in Akron (which has both an International Baccalaureate program AND a fantastic – and quite competitive – visual arts program that results in a special notation on one’s diploma upon completion), or to attend her home district Stow-Munroe Falls High School. Since she will be on the high school platform in OHVA this fall, which we have heard is far different from the elementary platform, she will be positioned to make a very educated decision about staying with OHVA. Whichever direction she decides to go, I know that the experience this year has changed her life (excuse me for borrowing from the musical ‘Wicked’ here) for good.

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