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A Day in the Life of an Online Public School Student

Back in some other post, I promised you a glimpse into one of our “typical days” at online public school. I didn’t realize at that time how hard that promise would be to fulfill! The truth is that what constitutes a “typical day” for us varies widely and depends on many variables, but I’ll do the best I can.

My typical day starts between 6:00 and 6:30 am when I get up to help my 10 year old get ready for her carpool. She attends the “brick and mortar” Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts in Akron. She needs to be out the door between 6:45 and 7:00 am. If my online public school kid Emily were attending Stow public school, her day would start then, too, so she could catch the bus at 7:20. But since there is no bus to catch, Emily usually doesn’t get up until 8:30 or 9:00 am!

She comes down in her pajamas, plops down on her end of the couch, checks her email, Google calendar, and the Tween Tribune for news, then gets right to work on school using the personal netbook she received for Christmas in 2010. On days when she has an online class, she’ll put her headset on and log in to attend – usually still in her pajamas. Sometimes I’ll hear her talking as she verbally answers a question the teacher has posed; sometimes I’ll see her typing – either to her teacher or to one of her friends. (They can’t usually chat online in class during the class, but they sometimes use Google Chat to get around that restriction!) When there is no online class, she usually checks the lesson online but gets right to work with her “old-fashioned” textbook and workbook.

Only about 30% to 50% of Emily’s school work is done at the computer. The rest is traditional textbook reading, taking notes, comprehension questions, practice math problems, hands-on science labs or art projects, and the same kind of work kids at “brick and mortar” schools bring home to do as homework. If she has a question about anything, I am usually available for consultation. If I happen to be running errands, doing carpool, or meeting a friend for breakfast, she will put that subject aside and work on something else until I get back.

After each subject, Emily puts her written work in the middle of the couch and lets me know it’s ready to be assessed. Sometimes she has typed out a paper using Google Docs, so she’ll share the document with me via email. After I check the work and provide feedback, there is usually an online assessment in the curriculum which she cannot take until I log into the assessment screen with my personal name and password. When she has completed a block of work, she records the time she spent on that subject in a small notebook she keeps on the end table, writing down start and end times.

Assessments are frequent and often short – usually at the end of every lesson in the unit and often only 5 questions long. There are mid- and end-unit assessments which are longer, more like traditional brick and mortar tests. The curriculum also has an end-of-unit review lesson built in. OHVA requires students to achieve at least 80% on every assessment to consider it passed. With a 5 question assessment, this means that she can miss one question which is supposed to ensure mastery of the material. HOWEVER – we agreed as a family at the beginning of the school year to a minimum acceptable score of 90%. In cases where it’s a 5 question assessment, she must get them ALL right. Often this happens on the first time; sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, she and I review the material together and talk about what was missed and why. Sometimes she will re-assess right away and sometimes she will do some more reading or practicing to master the skill before assessing later that day or the next.

After an hour or 90 minutes of work, she’ll take a stretch break, have some breakfast, brush her teeth, comb her hair, and maybe get dressed. If no one is coming over and we aren’t going anywhere, she might stay in her pajamas all day! Then it’s back to work for another hour or so. Some days she has art instruction for her school curriculum. On those days, our artist neighbor comes over for an hour and they go together the basement to work on a hands’ on project. She will take her computer down so they can reference the online lesson material while they work.

Usually after art, it’s time for lunch. She makes her own lunch – usually leftovers from dinner the night before. After lunch, she might get back to school work or she might practice piano while the house is quiet. Sometimes we have an outing, like a hike or a bowling get-together with school friends. It depends on the day and what we’ve scheduled!

On a typical day at home, Emily will usually spend several more hours with the curriculum at some point in the afternoon or evening. Two days a week she has additional independent art sessions where she works on her oil painting in the afternoon. Again, our artist neighbor and her art teacher comes to our house and they head to the basement for two hours to work at the easel. I am in and out of the basement as needed doing laundry, or just peeking in to see how things are going. One day a week she has piano lessons in the afternoon.  In the fall she was in a horseback riding class; during winter, there was weekly skiing; and in the spring she took ice-skating lessons. She also enjoyed monthly bowling outings with her friends. (We are required by state law to participate in an average of one to two hours a week of organized physical activity to fulfill our physical education requirements.)

Interestingly, Emily’s school work schedule is not too “out of the box”. Because her sister and dad are home on the weekends, those days are allocated mostly to fun family time, play dates with friends, family field trips, or simply to relaxation. Although she will often work on school in the evenings during the week when her sister is doing homework, this time is often spent to make up for time taken for something fun during the day like a field trip or physical activity.

At some point every evening, I sit down to look over the afternoon’s work, then she and I sit down and go over what was accomplished during the day and what she plans to work on the following day. The last thing I do each day is record her attendance into the online system based on the notes she herself took through-out the day. Although the OLS (online learning system) has some pretty good tracking and charting capability, we still maintain our own dynamic Google Spreadsheet where we track all sorts of stats on lesson completion, hours worked, percentage of progression through the curriculum, etc…. I love the sense that we are working as a team and that I am intimately in touch with what she’s learning, struggling to master, or interested in knowing more about. The focus is DEFINITELY on the learning and the standards are high – yet she seems to love those aspects of her education most of the time.

Did you notice what is NOT part of her typical day? She watches no television in an average week and rarely spends time on the telephone. When she relaxes, she plays computer games or Wii games, goes outside, chats online with friends, does art, reads a book for fun, or plays with the dog. She has time to help with household chores sometimes when I need a hand unloading groceries, making dinner, or cleaning up. This is one area where online school definitely trumps brick & mortar school – education and learning is an integrated part of everyday life instead of something that happens just “at school.”

And THAT is the “typical” day in the life of this online public school student!

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.

Beautiful, Beautiful

It’s been 6 and a half weeks since school officially began for us at Ohio Virtual Academy and what a whirlwind it’s been! I have so much to blog about that I hardly know where to start. Many of the points I will touch on briefly here deserve their own discussions. Please let me know what questions you have about our experience or journey so far that I could address more fully in future posts!

First the good stuff. Emily absolutely loves OHVA. Her joy of learning has not just returned, but it brought all its friends with it! It’s an enthusiasm party for education at our house! Emily is MUCH more the engaged, involved, and inquisitive child I used to know but lost a few years ago. Even though the same subjects that were hard for her in past years still present a challenge, there is not one subject that she does not enjoy – including math and even when she has to wrestle with a particular concept.

Here’s another plus: she is spending far more time in the material then she would in her local public school. As of today, she has actually attended school for 37 days averaging 5.7 hours per day of actual instructional time. Had she attended the local public school and started on the same calendar day, she would have attended only 33 days for 6.5 hours of TOTAL time, not solely instructional or curricular time. Over the course of the school year, this pace would translate to over 16 more school days! This curriculum is also far more rigorous and in depth than what our local brick and mortar public school provides.

But of course, the picture is not all beautiful. There are some DISadvantages to this schooling model. Primarily, this is NOT a program for the weak-hearted parent. This role of learning coach is a difficult one. Even though Emily works much more independently than she ever demonstrated in her brick and mortar school, she still has questions or requires assistance from time to time. This means that my primary job is to be available to her which, frankly, after 5 years of day-times to myself, is constricting.

I also feel that it’s not enough to give her pat answers found in the teacher guides. Sometimes I need to review a topic myself before I feel comfortable coaching her in it. How can I expect her to make connections and draw conclusions from material I have not myself reviewed? What if she’s missing some big picture point? This means some academic work for me as well as her!

Emily is also not comfortable being left home alone more than 2-3 hours at a time. Since we’re not willing to invest in a cell phone for her and since we got rid of our landline years ago, this posed a significant communication challenge. I’m pretty proud of the fact that I was able to overcome this challenge using Google Voice and Skype. Because Emily has had her own gmail account for several years, it was easy to set her up with a Google Voice phone number. Since she has used Skype to talk to her grandparents, she’s familiar with its use and comfortable using her computer to call my cellphone. This means I can get in touch with her to check on her progress when I’m away from home and she can call my cell phone using her computer. Best of all, this solution did not cost us a penny!

Another significant disadvantage to this type of education is the learning curve… or should I say the unlearning curve. September is always a difficult month for our family as we transition from the freewheeling of summer to the more scheduled school year. But with OHVA came the freedom to structure her learning day any way we wanted. Many people suggested re-creating a traditional classroom structure: have her get up, dressed, work at a desk, break for lunch, etc…. But OHVA encouraged us to think outside the box and embrace the freedom this type of education provides to do what works for us. It has taken all of 6 weeks for this to coalesce (I will blog about our typical day some other time).

My greatest disappointment, though, has been the lack of involvement of and with her teachers. All of her teachers have done their best to reach out, introduce themselves, and get to know her as a person, which was great the first week. But we haven’t seemed to move beyond that stage. I’ve made a great effort to be in touch with all four of her teachers, either through email or verbally or both, but they seem to treat her as a statistic still. The online classes didn’t start until 3 weeks into school and the benchmark testing wasn’t completed until this week. When this testing revealed that my 7th grader is at a college level in her reading, vocabulary, and comprehension, I understandably had questions about how to keep her challenged and progressing in a meaningful way. Their answers to my specific questions were right out of some “Intro to Educational Theory” undergraduate course and put the ball in my court to keep her challenged. This was not the type of support for her pre-identified giftedness for which I was hoping. This experience is really making me question the role of the teacher in education.

On the whole, though, the very BEST part of this alternative school experience is seeing Emily take ownership and responsibility for her own learning. Freed from the artificial social constraints of a traditional school and classroom, which most definitely teaches kids to learn and game the system to achieve the highest possible (meaningless) reward (also called a grade), Emily has already become MUCH more focused on learning. If she is struggling in a particular math concept, she might score a 60% on the narrowly focused assessment. The first week, this resulted in a melt-down and tears. Now she’ll go out to Khan Academy and watch those videos for additional tips and exercises. If she still can’t master the concept, she asks me for help and we work through it together. When she’s ready, she will retake the test to demonstrate mastery. It’s all about the learning. (There will most certainly be a more lengthy blog post on this topic in future weeks!).

At this point, we are still VERY pleased with our educational choice this year and we continue to refine and adjust our routine to suit Emily’s learning style and schedule. What more would YOU like to know about our journey so far?

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