ladamic's blog research on information networks and non-researchy random musings


The Unexpected Joy of Homeschooling

Filed under: Uncategorized — ladamic @ 15:08

If you’d told me a year ago that I would be listening to Debussy’s Clair de Lune with my eleven-year-old son’s head resting on my shoulder while we learn about music theory, I wouldn’t believe you. That we’d be laughing doing chemistry experiments in the kitchen? I’d skeptically point out that a DIY kitchen chemistry kit had sat unopened for nearly five years. That my son would be speaking Croatian (a few words at least) to me? I’d say that would have to be a parallel universe.

Yet we switched to this parallel universe when COVID hit and schools closed unexpectedly. In the instruction vacuum that appeared, my husband and I cobbled together a few learning activities: he taught coding and PE, I taught math and art. For the rest we relied on independent study with Khan Academy, Duolingo, and books. When the school started back up remotely 3-4 weeks later,  our son surprised us a bit by saying he preferred his routine with us. His teacher was wonderfully flexible. She allowed him to participate in the best of the school (e.g. a writing workshop), and continue learning at his own pace under our guidance.

As it happens, shortly before COVID hit, a friend of our son’s started homeschooling. Their example (and eventually practical advice on how to set things up) showed us this possibility. By the fall, when we asked our son whether he wanted to “return” to remote school, he chose homeschooling.

First what made this possible:

  • Our son is an eager and cooperative learner, something we’d also heard from his teachers.
  • 5th grade is relatively low stakes (at least we hope!)
  • My husband and I both have flexibility in our jobs, and are working from home.
  • My in-laws, seasoned teachers, readily jumped in to help teach remotely.
  • We could set up remote language lessons with tutors.

Things that I appreciate about homeschooling:

  • Free courses from top universities and elsewhere that are suitable for a general audience (and therefore an 11 year old + parent)
  • The student’s interest can be the guide
  • The ability to tie-in with other experiences
  • Extracurriculars can become part of the school day.

Let me start with the last point first. Pre-COVID, our son’s schedule was really packed. We’d pick him after work at the school’s aftercare, often to take him to a karate, tennis, or music lesson. The Mandarin lesson was on Sundays. The evenings and weekends also had to accommodate practicing for said music and karate lessons. Even though our son expressed curiosity in many things, including learning to code and astronomy, there was no way to fit anything else in. The school dictated his learning ~7 hours a day (plus homework). Any extra-curricular interests he had (or we had hoped he might develop) would have to fit in the slim evening or weekend hours.

His fascination with astronomy picked up early in 2020. In our busy pre-COVID schedules, we made a best effort, and went to a Silicon Valley Astronomy lecture about the recent imaging of a black hole. He then grew even more interested. He wanted to learn about relativity. “Special relativity?” I asked hopefully. “No. General relativity,” he replied. I bought a few books thinking we’d go through them together, but you can imagine how far I got with that.

But once we started homeschooling, my son was able to learn about black holes, and special and general relativity, through Astro 101: Black Holes on Coursera. He enthusiastically watched the videos and completed the quizzes. His young brain followed the curves of spacetime more flexibly than mine did. He asked a lot of questions and kept wanting to discuss more. The conversations spilled over into his video calls with his grandfather, an astrophysicist. I don’t know how much of the material he’ll retain, but the cool thing is: he was interested in learning astrophysics, and… he could! As a bonus, it was easy for me: we could both learn together, without my having to prepare material. I could roll out of bed, open my laptop, and presto: we’d be ready to learn. 

Black holes may have gotten us started, but there was a lot more to enjoy. How Things Work: An Introduction to Physics, was full of the classical mechanics demonstrations that make freshman physics courses fun. The instructor mentioned how some of his students were kids taking the course with their grandparents. And why not? These grandparents must have realized, like me, that there’s no reason to put off understanding the physics underlying  everyday experiences. We tried a couple of the simple experiments ourselves. To not be so single-subjected about it, we also took Mountains 101, a course combining geology, climate, ecology, culture… even tips for hiking and surviving in the mountains. We struggled through (having to reset deadlines at least three times, over the course of 6+ months) the Science of the Solar System, but we learned the latest (or up to 5 years ago latest) about other planets, which puts our little blue home planet in stark perspective. 

Some subjects, my son learns mostly independently. He always liked Khan Academy for math, and has been going through it at his own pace. We supplement here and there when there is opportunity. I’m “coaching” him and a few of his friends who are in learning arrangements without a school math team, to meet weekly to practice for and compete in Math Olympiad and Math Madness. It’s mostly oodles of silliness, but sometimes we solve a problem or two.

I had mentioned that learning along with your kid allows you to tie in more experiences. Normally I don’t have all that much awareness of what my son has learned in school.  But now, for example, when we go on hikes in the Sierras, we talk about what we learned of glaciers in Mountains 101. Our son opted to write about mountain formation for one of the writing assignments he worked on with his grandparents. He also wrote another essay about the possibility of extraterrestrial life based on the planetary science course. And since the course spent several weeks on Mars, we read “The Martian” together (I managed to filter out only some of the swearing). We also watched “The Planets” series made by BBC/Nova, which covered the space missions that had continued since the Coursera course was filmed. We used a multimeter to measure how much current a mylar balloon could carry, to check whether Mark Watney frying the Pathfinder electronics by resting a drill in the wrong spot was plausible (we got very little current, but perhaps our mylar balloon was different). This might seem a bit much all at once, but it actually stretches over months. Since there are no deadlines, “Mars” doesn’t have to be done during a certain week. We can revisit it when the fancy strikes us or an opportunity arises.

Sometimes the tie-in is not even the subject matter. On a road trip (to the above mentioned Sierras), we had listened to Terry Pratchett’s Lost Continent, which was partly narrated in a brilliant Australian accent. Our son had a lot of fun practicing this accent, and so it was a delight that we could find more books and nature shows on Australia, but also find coding courses delivered in the same accent, and one of his short art classes as well. Because: Why not? There are so many wonderful things out there (now I’m even hearing the “out there” in an Australian accent in my head 🙂 ), from different continents.

Speaking of Australia, as we started homeschooling, I was startled to discover that our son could not identify the continents on a map, not even the ones he had been to. I assumed they’d learn about them in school, but maybe not? Not that we had done better at home. I had optimistically bought a plastic globe that I think we had pulled out once or twice when he was still in preschool. It sat next to the unopened box of DIY kitchen experiments. A nice thing about homeschooling is that as soon as you identify a gap, you can fill it. It only took a few hours on a geo-quizzes site and he could identify most countries on the globe, and even some mountains, deserts and rivers too (which tied into the mountains 101 course). 

While it remains to be seen whether this year of homeschooling will ultimately have been a benefit or a setback for our one student, it has without a doubt been very enriching for me. I really enjoy the opportunity to learn again, to have time to dedicate to it. It seems indulgent, and normally I would be pretty tired and/or busy, but scheduling homeschooling first thing in the morning means I start the day fresh and ready to learn. Whether it is revisiting the physics I once knew, or learning the physics I had stopped short of (general relativity), or learning the new developments since I last took a course on something, all of these are really interesting — yet hard to justify as something I should be doing for work or for home life. I think sometimes to public lectures that are attended by a bunch of older people — people still so curious, at a stage in their lives where they realize how incredible our world is, how fleeting our time in it, how much there is to learn. I’m one of those people. 

For example, my music education was sparse: no music theory, no music history. I had listened to classical music in high school and college, but not much since. Last summer, when I played some classical music for my son on an old record player, he recognized it as “Charlie Chaplin” music, because that was where he had last heard it!  When he was younger I had dragged him to a few concerts and ballets, and he even took a liking to Mozart’s Requiem in kindergarten or first grade. But then, just as with the plastic globe, our music adventures paused as everything got busier. We started back up in homeschooling with Introduction to classical music. Taking this online course with my son was one of the most beautiful experiences. Being there as he listened, sometimes for the first time, to works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, …Tarrega, … Philip Glass. All while Prof. Craig Wright of Yale explained the music theory and the cultural context around each piece. Watching the movie Amadeus, telling him about the Caltech traditions around the Ride of the Valkyries, laughing at my son’s jokes about atonal music and Schoenberg, all was fun. 

My sorrow is that my mom is not here to take the music course with us. She’ll also never know that we are learning chemistry (her field) and are experimenting in the kitchen (a favorite lab of hers) thanks to the Harvard EdX course “The Science of Cooking“. She doesn’t know that we pulled out the microscope she had gotten for him several years earlier, and are doing experiments of our devising (e.g. looking at paper under the microscope when reading Stuff Matters, or figuring out the permeability of face masks (to water)). My dad I’m sure would have set up some experiments to complement the classical mechanics course, like he did with me when I was little. Fortunately, my son has his other set of grandparents now more involved than ever in his learning. I am grateful that my father-in-law, an astrophysicist and physics teacher, was game to talk about quantum mechanics and general relativity with his grandson. While my mother-in-law, a french teacher, consults on both French and English. My son meets weekly online with both grandparents for his reading and writing lessons. As my mother-in-law would say: “How cool is that?” It is very, very cool. 

I started by mentioning how we are able to move extracurriculars to school hours. Mandarin is now on Mondays at 2pm, and Sundays are for playing or hiking. Coding is a class, but also spills over into fun time as my son writes games and Minecraft mods. Pre-COVID, guitar and ukulele practice required nagging. But now, right on the minute, as my Zoom meeting starts, I’ll hear CCR or the Rolling Stones being enthusiastically practiced in the next room. Perhaps the most unexpected of all developments was my son’s learning Croatian. I had missed my chance to teach him when he was very little. Truth be told, I struggle with Croatian myself, having moved to the States when I was a kid. Yet every time we go to Croatia, people there frown in disapproval/disbelief that I hadn’t taught him the language. On our last trip, my son replied that he’d like to learn. In normal times, there would be no way to fit another class in. But with a flexible schedule, my son started lessons with a teacher remotely in Zagreb. We’re already counting on all the sladoled he’ll be ordering on his own, next time we’re there, after the pandemic…



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