Saturday, April 2, 2016

Bring the Benefits of Homeschool into Traditional Classrooms

Over Spring Break I visited my brother and his family. Last summer they bought their dream home on top of a mountain in North Carolina, and my sister-in-law started homeschooling my niece and nephew this year. Although I have never been tempted to homeschool my children, it is the right choice for their family. After spending several days with them, I have to admit I'm a little jealous. I'm not so jealous of my sister-in-law. If homeschooling is anything like the other ways I labor for my teenage, not-so-little darlings, I am quite sure it is a thankless job most of the time. Teaching is a such a difficult job, and I have no illusion that homeschooling is any easier. Mostly I was jealous of my niece and nephew. I noticed advantages homeschooling allowed them over my own students. On the long drive back to Florida, I pinpointed each of these advantages and thought through how I could make adjustments to my classroom to balance the scales a bit. Before teachers start getting defensive and blowing up my comment feed I need to point out that I believe the classroom does offer some advantages for students over homeschooling, too.  It just isn't the focus of this blogpost.

As students, my niece and nephew are allowed to work in a comfortable environment. If it is time to read, no one expects them to sit at a desk to do it. Not only are they not confined to one spot in a classroom, they aren't even confined to their home. On a restless day, the learning can be moved outside, to the library, or to a local park. If my nephew needs to get up get some wiggles out by running around, he isn't going to disturb an entire classroom. He's only going to annoy his sister, which is pretty much a brother's job anyway!

Teachers in many classrooms are already addressing this issue through flexible seating environments. If you aren't familiar with this concept, there is an excellent article on MindShift about Erin Klein's approach and Kayla Delzer's blogpost on her Starbuck's inspired classroom is fantastic. Using these articles for inspiration, I ditched most of my desks and redesigned my classroom a few months ago. My students have been more engaged and love the freedom. My school is located in a downtown area, so we don't have large, grassy areas to enjoy during learning. We do have a courtyard that is open most of the day. I've committed myself to taking my students out to the courtyard for lessons at least a few times per week. Since I don't like sitting still myself, I've always taken short breaks with students to do a few jumping jacks or stretches. Last week I discovered GoNoodle. It is a game changer! If you teach elementary students, and aren't familiar with GoNoodle, stop reading this blog right now and check it out!

Although my sister-in-law follows a curriculum, she still has an enormous amount of freedom in what and how she teaches. She is able to let her students decide which topics they want to study more in depth. Choice in learning is a strong motivator for students. My nephew is creative and enjoys math, inventing and programming. He happily shared a project he completed on Archimedes. I have designed many projects for my students, but I believe true project-based learning is the key to bringing that type of individualized learning to our students in the classroom. Project-based learning is more than just having students complete a project on a topic instead of learning about the topic from a text book. In PBL, teachers give students learning targets and a framework. In a well-designed project, the students will learn about the content and meet the learning targets while completing the project. They are also given the freedom to take the project in different directions based on their interests. At the beginning of a project, the teacher should know exactly what she wants the students to understand at the finish line, but she shouldn't really know exactly what their finished project will look like. I'm striving to reach this level with my students. It is certainly a challenge. Websites like BIE and edutopia have many resources to help in the quest.

Finally, the most obvious benefit for my niece and nephew is how well their teacher knows and understands them. She has years of experience dealing with their learning style, behavioral issues and individual personalities. I have always said that it is imperative to love each one of your students and have their needs as your primary goal. That is easy for a mother. Teachers have to truly seek out something to love about every, single student.

We will never know our students as well as their parents do, but we can work hard to embrace the uniqueness of each child. I ran into a parent not long ago. She was gushing over how much her son enjoys my class. Although he had a rough year last year, he has made incredible progress this year and loves school now. She was attributing his success to how well I understand him and his personality. I pointed out to her that she was the reason I understood him so well.  I call every parent in my class, the week before school begins. Most don't recognize the number and in my week before school rush, I'm secretly grateful they didn't pick up. Usually I just leave a message. This mother had called me back. She outlined the struggles her son had in the past, and told me about his personality. He has a lot of charm and bravado, but he is actually very sensitive on the inside. Quite frankly he can dish it out, but he can't always take it. I identified with what she was saying. I may or may not live with one or more people with this same personality trait. (They are sensitive. I'm not going to name names.) I most likely would have eventually figured this out about him myself, but I might have hurt his feelings and disconnected him from the classroom in the process. Moral of the story is to talk to parents. Instead of being grateful when the answering machine picks up during those introductory calls, let the parents know you really want to speak with them about their students and will be calling back to touch base. Everyone wants to be known and loved for exactly who they are and your students are no different.

I have an enormous amount of respect for my sister-in-law. Homeschooling is a difficult job, but it has many benefits for the students. There is no reason, we can't try to bring some of those benefits to our traditional classrooms. It may take a great deal of work, but I don't have to have given birth to my students to know they are worth the effort.