Handcrafting High School: Year 1, The First Four Months: Language Arts

Language Arts, SEA Online Class, SEA Teen Book Club, SEA Tween Book Club

Language Arts: How We Came to Be Homeschoolers

My son Sean was an early reader; I was an early reader; my father was an early reader; my paternal grandfather was an early reader. We all started reading at about the same age, between three and four years old. I’ve been told by someone who seemed to know what they were talking about that early reading, just like early walking and early talking, is a trait that runs in families. In addition to coming from a long line of early readers, I love to read. When people remember me as a child, the thing they’re the most likely to remember is what a bookworm I was. I still am. When Sean looks back on his childhood, one of the things he will probably remember is all the time I spent reading to him. I would still read to him even now, but he would rather read to himself these days. 😉 You might think that being an early reader would make kindergarten at a traditional school easy. If you think that, you would be right and wrong. Any class is easy if the other students are learning what you already know how to do, but you miss out on the essential skill of learning how to learn, which to me is the most important thing to learn during your school years. If you don’t learn how to learn, when you do get to subjects that are hard, you will not know how to learn the material in them. I volunteered in Sean’s classroom and was bothered when the teacher would call the rest of the class up to the front to do work and would leave Sean sitting working on a coloring page. I didn’t blame her. When Sean started school No Child Left Behind was the law of the land, and she was doing what she had to do. No other child in his class knew how to read. Obviously that was where her attention needed to go. From my standpoint though, Sean didn’t need any more work on coloring. At the first parent-teacher conference his teacher told me, “Well, you have nothing to worry about.” Whether that was true or not was a matter of perspective. His teacher was pretty awesome actually, don’t get me wrong. She followed that comment up with a discussion of what she would do to develop some academic tasks that were meaningful for Sean. At the second parent-teacher conference his teacher said to me, “Aren’t you a stay-at-home mom? Why aren’t you homeschooling? If I didn’t need to work, I would’ve homeschooled my kids.” Before going on I should digress a bit and tell you that I had thought about homeschooling Sean, but I got cold feet worrying that I would fail him somehow, so I put him in traditional school instead. I owe Sean’s kindergarten teacher a debt of gratitude. She is the person that gave me the courage I needed to homeschool Sean.

That Was Then. What about Now?

        I break language arts into two main categories, the mechanics and the craft. The mechanics includes spelling, grammar, and writing. The craft includes writing and reading.

The Mechanics: The least favorite, the most favorite, and something new

Sequential Spelling
Language Arts: Sequential Spelling

Spelling, the least favorite subject for both of us: Over the past 9 years I have come to HATE‼ spelling. I hate this academic subject with so much passion, heavy sigh just thinking about it. 🙁 Being a strong reader does not guarantee you will be strong at spelling. My guess is that most high school students do not have spelling as a separate class. Sean still does. We have been working through Sequential Spelling for the past four years, and I highly recommend it if spelling is a problem area for your child. It has greatly helped to improve Sean’s spelling. Even with this effective spelling program his spelling is just okay though. Do not use the IPad App btw. It is terrible, and is coupled with even worse customer service. The DVDs are much superior.

Strunk and White's The Elements of Style
Language Arts: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style

Grammar, the most favorite of one of us: Grammar is Sean’s favorite subject of all time. The laugh is on me, because this was my least favorite subject (until I started homeschooling my son in spelling that is)! Sean has always loved diagramming sentences. Grammar this year started with Sean reading through The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Sean reviewed the rules for punctuation. “Where is the diagramming, Mom?” “Sorry Sean, there isn’t any this year.” Going forward he will only work on grammar as it relates to punctuation. He does miss the diagramming, but I noticed at the end of last year that he was weak on some of the punctuation rules. I know he misses diagramming sentences, but that particular skill wasn’t improving his punctuation!

The Mechanics of Writing, something new: Sean is incredibly creative with his writing. In the past he has fought any type of writing program that did not focus almost entirely on the creative side of writing. I have been fine with this. The craft of writing, in my opinion, is much harder to learn than the mechanics of writing, but you do need the mechanics. In the past Sean used Michael Clay Thompson’s language arts series and Bravewriter, both of which he (and I) loved and learned a lot from. This is not to say these programs do not focus on the mechanics of writing, but I do not think that is their primary focus. At the beginning of December, Sean and I discussed what to do to make sure he has a good understanding of the mechanics of writing. He needs to make sure he has the skills necessary for the writing portion of the SAT and for his college classes. I was really worried and was going to do something really structured. Sean talked me into compromising and letting what was supposed to a three paragraph essay be a three page story. It turned out my worrying was for naught! The paper was great. LOL! I could have worse problems; I am sure some of you are not sympathetic at all! The Craft: Two beloved academic pursuits The Craft of Writing benefits greatly from a focus on reading: Writing and reading are intertwined at our house. I tease them apart to think of the scope and specifics, such as what books Sean will read, then weave them back together. Writing to me is an artistic endeavor. It is individual, meaningful, and fulfilling. It is also hard. Writing something that others want to read is harder than chemistry! I think it is the hardest subject we work on in school. It is hard to assess as an educator too. Like science, I think the homeschool setting is the best academic environment to work on the craft of writing. To improve your craft with writing, you need time to write without artificial deadlines. I think working on becoming skilled at timed writing (which we are going to work on over the next school year) is a ridiculous waste of time. It is an essential skill because of the SAT, but an irrelevant skill when it comes to crafting writing pieces worth reading! My absolute favorite book about the craft of writing is Wondrous Words by Katie Wood Ray if you are into that sort of reading. So what did we use these past 4 months, you are probably wondering…

  • Comics and Graphic Novels (CGN): This is a Coursera Course, https://www.coursera.org/course/comics. Someone recommended it on the Secular Homeschool Teens Facebook group. This course turned out to be much more than I expected. When I signed Sean up for the class, I thought it would be a filler class to get him started. The class turned out to be much more in-depth and meaningful than that. It was an excellent course. Sean and I both really liked the teacher, William Kuskin. Sean spent the first four months of the school year reading the comics and graphic novels recommended in the course.


The specifics of why I was so impressed with this course. It focused on

  • Structure: All good writing has structure. I do not mean, though, that it is formulaic. I mean, all good writing has a structured reasoning for what goes where. Writing is art, so the structure might not be obvious. I have always loved the poems of e. e. Cummings because of the artistry with his structuring of the words he writes. With Sean my favorite author to use when we discuss structure is Gary Paulsen. He is an absolute master at structuring words and sentences to enhance the story. Kuskin spent part of the course discussing topics like the weaving of the illustrations with the words, the panels, the gutters, and shading and the use of color. Then CGN had Sean analyze specific pages of text from comic books and write about what he noticed about their structure. Sean hit his groove with this, noticing things that I did not pick up on until Sean pointed them out. Sean is much more in tune with visual art than I am. I come from a family of visual artists. I am the only writer in the family. Growing up, my family considered me the least creative member of it. My number one fan, my husband Jim, begs to differ with them, LOL!
  • The evolution of the genre: Genres of writing evolve and change. This is not easy to show with most genres. CGN is a modern enough genre that the change and growth, the history, can be studied effectively over a four month period. I think it is good for young writers to learn organically that there is growth and development in all writing including their own.
  • Literature analysis: There was also a discussion of different genres within the larger, more encompassing, genre of comics and graphic novels. This coupled with the focus on structure led to a decent amount of literature analysis in this course, at least the way we studied it. Sean and I read and discussed several comics and graphic novels over the four months. Some, such as Maus, Planetary, and Hush, he loved. Others, such as Saga and Funhouse, he felt more neutral about. I thought they were all great. He just likes certain genres of CGN better than others.
  • Editing the work of his classmates: Many of the students in the class wrote their own short comics as a final project. I printed them out and have had Sean, he is still working on this, critically evaluate each as he reads them.

Don’t just take it from me. This link will take you to other reviews of this course: http://www.coursetalk.com/coursera/comic-books-and-graphic-novels

  • My writing: There is nothing quite as satisfying to Sean as to go through and critically edit my writing. I make sure and save an early draft. I have read many times that the best writing teachers write. I use my science texts unless he gets stuck. When that happens I write along with him in the genre he is writing until he gets unstuck.
LA 4 Room
Language Arts: Room
  • Reading the books I love this year: This summer Sean picked up a book from my night stand that I had not yet read. I was working through my stack and had not gotten to it. It was Room, by Emma Donahue. Sean loved the book. He insisted I read it right away, it was so good! When I did I realized I would NEVER have given it to my 14 year old to read.

But it did get me thinking about reading choices this year. I decided to depart from a scripted list of books for him and have him read the books I read and love over the year. That is how Sean came to read The Martian. He is about to start reading Me before You, by Jojo Moyes. He reads them, and then we discuss them. I have him send me one email about a technique he notices and likes each day that he reads. It is quite fun and enlightening for both of us! It is very possible none of these books will “stand the test of time as modern classics”, but they will all be really good reads.

LA 5 Blair's Book Pile
Language Arts

This is my book pile for this year. Sean will not read all these, but I will. Sean will only read the best of the best. That part is very subjective. I will be the one to decide which are the best of the best, someone else might disagree with me. How this pile is selected is that all year, when I hear of a book that sounds particularly interesting to me, I put it on my Amazon wish list. At Christmas time I go through this list and choose books from it. My big present from my husband is the stack of books from the wish list that I decide I want to read over the course of the year. This year I was surprised to find so many books on the list. It was because we spent last December in India, and I didn’t get any books from last year’s wish list. I ordered some from that list too. Some of these books are even from three years ago. We moved about a year and a half ago and some of these books were packed instead of read. I found the box at Christmas time and added them to the pile to be read this year. I love to read. Did I say that already? I will put the names of the books at the end of this for those of you who are curious about the titles. The reason for getting these books in print, not as e-books, is that when books are great I like to share them with my friends, and I hope many of these are great.

Decoded by Jay Z
Language Arts: Decoded by Jay Z

Sean and I particularly like writers (and singers) who are what we call wordsmiths. One of my favorite books for this discussion is Jay Z’s book Decoded, where he decodes the meanings, stylistic nuances, and history of hip-hop music as well as telling some of his own history. Decoded contains some adult themes. I did let Sean read it, but if you would not let your child listen to rap music, this book might not be a good fit. You could always download a sample of the e-book and see what you think. This link will take you to a two page spread of a song that he decodes.


Blair’s Book Pile from left to right:

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarity

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

An Absent Mind by Eric Rill

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

To Live by Yu Hua

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman

When I Found You by Catherine Ryan Hyde

The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt

Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt

Abundance a Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund

Mahjong from A to Zhu by Scott D. Miller (Sean gave me a Mahjong Set for Christmas.)

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Russians, the People behind the Power by Gregory Fiefer

Words Will Break Cement the Passion of Pussy Riot by Masha Gessen

Spark, the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratney M.D.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

The Invisible Front by Yochi Dreazen

Walking the Amazon by Ed Stafford

House of Stone by Anthony Shadid

Check out our post on teaching history here and check out Sean’s Physical Education here.

Handcrafting High School: Year 1, The First Four Months: History


History: A Repeat of a Favorite Class and Volunteering

The Course: A Brief History of Humankind: This is a Coursera course, https://class.coursera.org/humankind-002, that repeats regularly. It is the best history course I have ever taken. The instructor, Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem comes across as brilliant, even as he makes history accessible to a lay person! There is a book as well, but Sean did not use it. I did though, http://www.ynharari.com/sapiens-the-book/short-overview/. I read it, referred to it, and made a series of questions from it to accompany each lecture. Sean got a lot more out of the class that way. I did not have him write the answers, instead we would discuss them. Some of these questions took us far afield. It was a thought provoking quarter for history. The class is about the big picture not the memorization of dates and facts. Most people I know do not remember much history, probably because they just learned it for the test. History taught the way Dr. Harari teaches it is memorable.

This was the second time Sean has taken this class. I was surprised when Sean asked to take it again at the start of this year. He took it a year ago! He wanted to work on the skill of note taking, and he felt he could get more out of this class a second time. His main reason though was that he liked this class that much! After giving it some thought, I decided that it would be like rereading a book you loved. You do get much more out of the book the second time reading. Both Sean and I have gotten much more out of this class the second time through.

The course is free so even with the book this is very affordable. There are quizzes for the class on the Coursera site. (Sean is working on the skill of test taking this year. Sean is not an experienced test taker, and suffers from pretty severe test anxiety, so he needs to work on that skill.) http://www.ynharari.com/

The text that I used to help me prepare questions. It was a great read!
History: The text that I used to help me prepare questions. It was a great read!

I thought about having Sean write 4 research papers for history over the 4 months that he took to complete A Brief History of Humankind. I opted for him to volunteer instead. There are only so many hours in the day, and he didn’t have time for both. The way we scheduled the class, without a writing component, was not time intensive. Sean and I watched the video lectures in the car on the way to crew practice. We discussed the salient points covered in the lectures using the guided questions I had put together. We (yes we) took the quizzes. By the way, I read over the quizzes when I was making the guided questions, after I had taken the quiz myself, to make sure we covered everything, and that Sean was very familiar with the terms Dr. Harari tested. I felt it important that I take this class with Sean so that he had someone to talk with about what he was learning. I think history lends itself to intellectual discussion, and this provided a way for us to have intellectual discussions about topics I did not know much more about than Sean did.

Volunteering: We feel strongly about volunteering at our house. We have volunteered for an animal rescue organization (http://www.projectwildlife.org/), helping kids learn to speak English in Delhi, India (http://www.crossculturalsolutions.org/), and now on a re-election campaign.

We worked on Scott Peters re-election campaign.
History: We worked on Scott Peters’ re-election campaign.

Every election cycle we include the election in our history. I have been corrected by some people that politics are civics not history, but I do not agree with that distinction. Aren’t our political choices a big part of what drives history?

We feel strongly about voting at our house. I think it is important to raise Sean in an environment where he is aware of what is going on in politics. I am raising a voter. I am also trying to raise him to be a critical thinker. I am not looking for him to agree with me on everything, or even vote as I do. I want him to come to his own understandings and beliefs about what is the best course. Democracies work best when all citizens vote. The issues and candidates you support might not win every time, but you will live in a more equitable and peaceful nation, because the majority of the people living in it voted, which means the majority of the people spoke about what and who they wanted for their nation.

I could not wait to vote as I approached the age of 18. I grew up in a family whose members voted, often for different parties and differently on issues. We discussed our reasons, we talked about the issues, and we did not let it become divisive when we disagreed about them. I have voted every voting cycle since I was 18 years old, except for one when I could not make it to the polls in time. I want Sean to take voting as seriously as Jim (my husband) and I do.

Sean is listening to the candidate speak.
History: Sean is listening to the candidate speak.

I think the best way to make sure Sean cares about voting and the issues facing our country is by participating in the process. This year Sean, Jim, and I volunteered on the campaign for a candidate running to keep his house seat. We watched the debates, learned about the issues, and paid attention to the results of the election. It made a difference to volunteer for a campaign because we were much more vested in the results.

Sean is working the phone banks. This was a tough job. Most people do not want to speak on the phone to strangers about their political choices.
History: Sean is working the phone banks. This was a tough job. Most people do not want to speak on the phone to strangers about their political choices.








Check out our post on handcrafting science here.

Handcrafting High School: Year 1, The First Four Months: Science

Science: A Parent’s Passion

        I LOVE science‼ My son likes science. This is the main area of handcrafting Sean’s education that has focused on the passions of someone in his family besides him. (My husband’s and my other passions are shared by Sean.) I am a scientist, and I know a lot of science. Even though he doesn’t have my strong passion for science, my son is good at science. He has had the benefit of a good science education. I am a passionate proponent of people learning how the natural and physical world works. I do not think of science as an ancillary subject, and I believe strongly that the treatment by our academic institutions of science as ancillary has led to a lot of the problems our world is facing right now.

Stars are being born here. This is from the Hubble Telescope. It is easy to understand how captivating it is to study astronomy.
Science: Stars are being born here. This is from the Hubble Telescope. It is easy to understand how captivating it is to study astronomy. Photo from, http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/

I want to come clean with you; I did something I caution other parents against doing. I am using my middle school science textbook for high school. I made sure Astronomy and Earth Science was far enough along so that I could use it with Sean this year. Let me start by telling you, it is a middle school text. I am beefing it up by adding more math to it, having him write regular lab reports, and having him read relevant periodicals, books, and on-line articles to go along with the weekly theory, but I am not significantly changing my text. I am calling this course Applied Chemistry and Physics, which it is, on Sean’s high school transcript to make it easier for the colleges where he applies to recognize the coursework this class entails.

It might make me sound a bit like a control freak (I am not btw), but here are my reasons for using my text even if it is a middle school text. My choices of texts and courses are severely limited when it comes to those that are sold to the homeschool community because:

  • I will not use a course that excludes or misrepresents scientific facts, principles, models, or theories that are considered core ideas in the field. I am a scientist. I am not going to play silly games about what constitutes good science. I care too much about it. It pains me to admit it, but most of the science materials developed specifically for the homeschool community play this game of omission and/or misrepresentation with many of the core established understandings of science. When I see this it is a signal to me that the person responsible for the material does not have the same passion I do for teaching people how the natural and physical world works, and I just cannot use their stuff.
  • I find many public school texts available for homeschoolers to be dry, arcane, and full of advanced topics without enough grounding in the foundational fundamentals.
  • Many texts have an inadequate or thoughtless pairing of labs with the theory.
  • Often with public school texts, there is just too much material to get through in a year, with too much emphasis on facts that could easily be looked up using your phone (which is what we all do!).
  • Most public school texts assume the material is going to be taught by a teacher, so the fit isn’t easy if you are not prepared to teach from it. And even I would rather not put together a yearlong series of lectures for just one student from someone else’s text. That is one reason my texts are written to the student as a really complete series of lecture notes. (That is how I think of my texts.) I consider each chapter in my text to be one (occasionally two) lecture’s worth of material written in a conversational manner. It is also why the Teacher’s Guide has a Text Review. Those would be my lecture notes if I were teaching from my book. It is much easier for me, the author, to write the lecture notes, than for parents who are using my texts.

This does make me sound like a control freak about science doesn’t it?!? LOL!

I have my reasons for using my text, but even so, a year ago it would have made me nervous to use this course for high school. Then two unrelated events happened that made me take a harder look at the science many consider high school level.

  1. I signed Sean up for a science co-op class to take along with this one. The class met the University of California a to g requirement for a high school science class. The class only met once a month! The labs did not seem to be carefully paired with the theory. They felt more like a hodgepodge of laboratory techniques crammed together. I concluded that if this class met the UC System requirements, then we were doing above and beyond that with my middle school courses.
  2. Early in the 2014/2015 school year, I was contacted by a parent who is using RSO Biology 2. They had recently moved to New York State. Here is her statement from a review she wrote about RSO Biology 2 on Amazon, “I’m now using this book to teach a science co-op in NY. According to the White Plains school district, the labs in this book can be used to qualify for the biology/living environment Regents Exam.” In a separate email, I learned that to graduate from high school in New York State you must take certain classes and then pass the Regent’s Exam for those classes. After reviewing the material in RSO Biology 2, the White Plains School District told the homeschooling parent that as long as they saved the records from the biology labs this course would satisfy the high school requirement for a year of biology/living environment. The irony was the parent was not trying to get them to approve this as a high school level course. Her daughter was in middle school. When she moved to the White Plains school district they wanted to look at the materials she was using before giving their approval that she could homeschool her daughter! She shared the topics and labs from RSO Biology 2 to get them to approve this book for use in middle school. Instead the school district approved the book for high school (and middle school). Her daughter and the other students at the co-op are getting credit for both, I guess. there was also a comment in a similar vein from a different reviewer on Amazon. This is a quote from their comment, “P.S. I suppose I should mention that before this program, he scored in the 69th percentile on science (7.3 GE) according to a national, standardized test for fifth-graders. This year he scored in the 90th percentile in science (13+ GE) on the same national, standardized test given to sixth-graders. What does that mean? It means he’s got mastery of the content more than anything.”
RSO Biology 2
Science: RSO Biology 2 http://www.pandiapress.com/?page_id=82

When RSO Biology 2 first came out, people contacted me about using it for high school. My standard response was that it was not written to be a high school level text and there were things that were left out that I would have included in a high school level course. For example, I left out the electron transport chain during the discussion of photosynthesis. I left out a probability exercise showing the number of different combinations of chromosomes that can be made during meiosis and then recombined at fertilization for two diploid organisms with 3 chromosomes in their karyotype. (I did write this though. My publisher wisely had me remove it. It really was advanced even for most high school students. 😉 ) There would be more chemistry woven into the biology. Next school year Sean will study chemistry. I will have to make sure he gets the important biochemistry then.

I spent some time thinking (mildly obsessing my husband and publisher would say, LOL!) about the situation with the Regent’s Exam, and I think I know why the school district felt RSO Biology 2 qualifies as a high school level course. Good science programs are moving away from a focus on memorizing facts and to a focus on science practices. In most cases, the basic concepts and foundational fundamentals are the same for a high school and middle school text. Maybe middle school courses do not check every single box for the more complicated concepts, but there is no way for middle school and high school students to practice most of the more advanced concepts anyway. Very few texts have a strong focus on the application and practice of the science concepts being taught. RSO Biology 2 (and Astronomy and Earth Science 2) have that as a primary focus. There is a focus in these courses on learning the foundational fundamentals and then applying them. A focus on the application and practice of science concepts and foundational fundamentals translates to a focus on using the scientific method in a meaningful way, the way scientists actually use it.  It is one of the reasons I have students make their own slides in RSO Biology 2. If you buy prepared slides, you will get a better view of the specimen than if you prepare your own slides. I guarantee it! But if you do that you will never become good at making slides, and studying science should not just be about looking at what others have done. Studying science should include you interacting with the natural and physical world to come to a better, more complete understanding of how it works.

Science: Lunar eclipse, 10/7/2014

I would have used Astronomy and Earth Science 2 even without these two things happening, but I would have obsessed more, making sure I covered the specific facts I am leaving out of the middle school text that I would not leave out in a high school text. I have a confession to make about last year too. I used my biology text as a high school level biology course in 8th grade. Sean wanted to do biology again in 8th grade. The sequence for Sean’s science during middle school was 5th grade: middle school biology, 6th grade: physics, 7th grade: chemistry, 8th grade: high school biology. He hasn’t had astronomy or earth science since 2nd grade.

So far this has been a great year of science. The sequence of topics in the text is astronomy, geology, hydrology, the atmosphere and meteorology, and environmental science. Sean has only gotten through the astronomy portion. Sean is loving science this year. Astronomy has really captured his interest and imagination. I have to be careful when Sean looks at the supplementary videos and articles, because he can lose a day that way. Not that I mind, it is just that I have to make sure there is nothing pressing when he starts science!

The Parallel Universe Theory has captivated Sean's imagination.
Science: The Parallel Universe Theory has captivated Sean’s imagination. Illustration from, http://www.tip-day.com/parallel-universe-myth-reality-new-hypothesis/

In addition to using my course, Sean has read the following:

A Wrinkle in Time
Science: A Wrinkle in Time
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – The reading level was a little young for him, but I coupled the reading with a discussion of Einstein’s Theories and how there could be “wrinkles” in time. (A topic that isn’t too young for him or anyone else!) Sean loved this. In addition to his studies, he has taken the time to learn MUCH‼ more than I know about parallel universe theories!
A Brief History of Nearly Everything
Science: A Short History of Nearly Everything
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson – This book along with my course, I feel, took Astronomy and Earth Science 2 up to the high school level! Sean has loved parts of this book and been lukewarm about others. I should probably state here, my son will enter college with a level of science that will enable him to do well in his science courses. Sean knows more science than most adults, but most adults do not have much science knowledge. Unless Sean changes his mind, Sean’s focus in high school science will not be at the AP science level. If your student’s focus is at the AP science level, this is not a rigorous enough course for you. But because of the focus on the foundational fundamentals, Sean is able to make connections across the science disciplines that are deep and nuanced


The Martian
Science: The Martian
  • The Martian by Andy Weir – I read this book in two days. It took Sean a week. This book is science, science fiction, action, and a nail biter. Each day that Sean read this, I had him email me a writing technique he noticed and liked that the author had used, I also had him email me 1 science fact from the book.

I know many of you want to get your hands on this text NOW!! I am peddling as fast as I can, I promise!



Check out our post on teaching computer science in home schooling high school here.

Handcrafting High School: Year 1, The First Four Months: Computer Science

Homeschooling Coding: A Student’s Passion

        I have been very thoughtful handcrafting this academic area. I will go through the process of how I did it, so you can see what I mean when I say I am handcrafting Sean’s education. I do not know much about coding, so when it comes to homeschooling coding, I have had to rely on others for how it is best learned and advice on the best course of study. Because of this, I think it will make it more meaningful for you to see how I went about handcrafting this area versus a subject area like science.

Why this has a central place in Sean’s core education: I think computer science, coding, should be mandatory and not treated as an elective. I pay a lot of attention to current events, academics, and how both should be merged for Sean’s education because of where the world is headed. Based on my observations, learning to code should not be treated as optional! At this time, no other academic discipline leads to as many different options for meaningful career opportunities. Traditional schools as a whole are behind the ball on doing a good job of teaching this too. You almost have to homeschool if you want your child to have a good education in computer science.

Three years ago, I bought a canned curriculum designed to teach kids to code. Sean hated it. I made him stick with it for 6 weeks. He never stopped hating it, so I let him quit. But I never stopped believing that learning to code was so important he would have to study it again at some point.

Homeschooling Coding: This is the high score from a game Sean designed. He decided playing games was more fun the designing them.
Homeschooling Coding: This is the high score from a game Sean designed. He decided playing games was more fun the designing them.

Two years ago Sean told me he wanted to learn to design computer games. Yeah! His interest was piqued‼ This was where it all started. I found a camp he could go to for two weeks during the upcoming summer focused on designing computer games. I also got lucky at about the same time. I was on the lookout, you see. I read an article in my alumni newsletter about a group at UCSD that was starting a Sunday program where kids could go and learn coding. The name of the group is ThoughtSTEM. Sean began attending the Sunday ThoughtSTEM sessions. He also went to the summer camp and learned, as he told me, “It is more fun to play video games than to make them.”

ThoughtSTEM  http://www.thoughtstem.com/home

      All along I immersed him in everything ThoughtSTEM had to offer. I made a point of talking to the people running it, emailing them when I had thoughts or questions, and getting the most I could out of their program for Sean. They became Sean’s and my mentors for how to learn coding. The take home message here is that I thought it was important for him to learn coding, so I worked hard at making it happen.

Homeschooling Coding: Sean at ThoughtSTEM with his pug Jez.
Homeschooling Coding: Sean at ThoughtSTEM with his pug Jez.

Sean took a high school level class through ThoughtSTEM last year in App Development. He also went through an internship program with them, where they trained him to teach young kids to code. He interned 1 week at a camp in the spring and 1 week at a camp in the summer for them. He participated in a coding faire they put on at UCSD. This year his training turned into a job. Sean works about 9 hours a month teaching coding to kids.

Throughout the 2013/2014 school year, Sean worked on designing websites with ThoughtSTEM. He also learned Photoshop and 3-D design with Maya and 3-D Studio Max. These last were not with ThoughtSTEM; they were through other programs. I learned that Sean likes to code and work with computers to create art.

The focus of this year: This summer I asked our mentors at ThoughtSTEM what they thought Sean should study for the 2014/2015 school year. They suggested Sean learn the foundational fundamentals of coding. Things like algorithms. (This is very ironic if you follow my science posts.)

I talked to Sean about how he wanted to proceed with this and he wanted to learn how to code C/C++. I did some research and decided the best way to make this happen was to put him in a series of coding classes at UCSD Extension. I decided on an extension, not a community college, because the extension classes are 3 hour classes once a week over 9 weeks. That fits much better with our schedule than 2 or 3 times a week over 16 weeks as is the schedule for most community college classes. I signed him into the first of a 5-course series to learn to code C/C++. The first course was called, An Introduction to Computer Programming with Java.

A hoop to jump through first: When I contacted UCSD Extension they told me he could only enroll if a counselor or other administrator from our school district okayed it. They would not take my word that he was ready, even though the only prerequisite was access to a computer with an internet connection. I explained that I was the sole director, administrator, and educator at our home school, and the only person from his “school” who could substantiate that he was ready for this class was me, his mother. They actually told me I was incorrect, and that by law I must be working with someone from the school district where we live. I knew they were incorrect, but I wasn’t sure how to respond. I gave it some thought, because homeschooling coding was going to happen this year! Luckily, I contacted a state homeschool group I am a member of, The Homeschool Association of California (HSC) http://www.hsc.org/home-page.html for advice. They forwarded the issue to their legal department, and within 12 hours an attorney sent a letter to me to forward to UCSD Extension. In addition to them being incorrect about how homeschooling works in California, they were discriminating against Sean because he was homeschooled.

My message to you is, have a state homeschool group you can go to. If you had told me that I was ever going to need legal help at any point while homeschooling Sean, I would have thought you were nuts! But guess what, I did. Thank goodness I had someone I could go to. There are two great homeschooling groups in California, HSC and California Homeschool Network (CHN) http://www.californiahomeschool.net/. I am a member of both. It was also good that I did not give up. I did not get mad at UCSD, but I did stick with it. I wanted to put Sean in that class and I worked at it until he was in. http://extension.ucsd.edu/

Some surprises were in store: Sean was in! Now for the real work. This was a college class. It didn’t occur to me, but Sean did not know that you should take notes, ask questions in class, or use the book and highlight the text or make notes in the book. I had to work with Sean so he learned these skills while he was taking the class. Also, he was intimidated by the fact that he was the only person under the age of 22. Sean thought all the people were between the ages of 22 and mid 40’s. I do not know. I never went into his class with him. He would only ask the instructor questions via e-mail, which bugged me, but did not seem to bother his instructor.

Homeschooling Coding: An image for the game Sean has been writing the code for.
Homeschooling Coding: An image for the game Sean has been writing the code for.

As I told you earlier, one of Sean’s passions is coding to make art. He loves to design web sites. He does not love to code to make programs that are not visual. For him, Google Doodles are captivating; writing a program to calculate the tip and change for a restaurant bill is not. This class was work for him because it focused on the areas that he is not passionate about. At one point, he told me he was done with coding after this class. My response, “Darn, just when it stopped being optional.” That to me is the heart of child-led learning. My child’s passion and my own belief that homeschooling coding was important led us here, but when he stopped being passionate about it, I did not let him walk away. Like I told him, “If I thought when you were 30 you were going to say it was a mistake to stick with coding at the age of 14, I would let you quit. But you won’t say that. I am sure of it.”

Sean is a little more keen on this class now. He graduated the class with 104% in it. He worked hard and got an A+. The teacher sent him an email congratulating him, telling him, “He had succeeded where others had failed!” Do not get the wrong impression that Sean is particularly gifted at this. I just made sure he had the time to work on the programs and get them debugged and turned in before the due date. No procrastination was allowed. When he got stuck he emailed the teacher and got the help he needed.

In case you are wondering, I am not using this class so that Sean can attend college early. Sean will attend college in 3 ½ years. I just couldn’t find any good classes to teach the foundational fundamentals of coding outside of a college setting. I had to find a class for this because I did not want to learn computer programming. 🙂

The plan going forward: Sean has 4 more classes to take focused on programming with C/C++. At the end of that, he will earn a certificate in Programming with C/C++. http://extension.ucsd.edu/programs/index.cfm?vAction=certDetail&vCertificateID=23&vStudyAreaID=14 He will be finished by this time in 2015. In 2016, he plans on starting a series of classes to earn a certificate in Graphics and Digital Design. (He will get back to his passion after picking up some foundational fundamentals!) He will complete the C/C++ Series. I am treating those classes as a mandatory part of his core classes. It is through this series that he will learn the foundational fundamentals for computer programming. It is just one language, but that seems to be how it works with computer science. The Graphic and Design classes are planned but can be changed if Sean finds another area of computer related courses he would rather take. This sounds good to Sean now, but we will have to see where he is at a year from now.

When I read over this post, it seems messy, wandering, and a bit chaotic. I was going to shorten it and clean it up for readability, but decided to leave it so you would get a feel for the messy, wandering, chaotic process I use for handcrafting Sean’s education. This process is the journey, and it is a very personal one. We tried some things that worked better for him than others. Some of the things we tried took fortitude and hard work before he liked them. Some things he loved so much he had trouble tearing himself away from them. Some things he never liked. There is simply no way of knowing before embarking on the journey what it will look like while you are taking it. So far the journey has led to a place where Sean has completed a college level computer coding class in which he learned a lot of the foundational fundamentals of coding, and he has a part time job working in a field he loves. Who knows where it will lead from here, he is still on the journey. This is the academic area he is the most passionate about, but only specific parts of it. He is 15. Who knows where it will lead. And that’s okay, as long he enjoys the journey!

Read our handcrafting high school article for math here.

Handcrafting High School: Year 1, The First Four Months: Homeschooling Math

Homeschooling Math: How a Weakness Became a Strength

The Textbook: Harold Jacobs Elementary Algebra: This text is well thought out and thorough. It is the best high school algebra text I looked at, especially if you have a child who might be taking advanced math classes, such as calculus, in the future. Math is a strong suit of mine though, so I am not sure it is the right course for homeschooling math for a parent who is not strong in this subject.

Homeschooling Math
Homeschooling Math: The Algebra Course we are using for 9th grade.

My son always felt that he was bad at math until this year. Math has been the source of so much frustration for the two of us! I could see that he was good at the high level thinking side of math. Where my son struggles is the simple arithmetic side. He also struggles with spelling, but not the rest of language arts. I bet there is a connection between these two, spelling and arithmetic. Maybe they use a similar cognitive path?

We have worked long and hard again and again on simple math facts. They just do not stick with him. This summer (2014) we used the on-line program CTC Math, and that helped with this more than anything else we tried, but it did not entirely solve the problem. (If math is not your strong suit, give CTC a look. We liked it. My son loved the Australian accent.) We moved to Elementary Algebra in September, 2014 because Sean needs help from me in math. I find it much easier to give help if there is a text we can both refer to. I have yet to see an on-line course that makes it easy for the parent/teacher to refer to or use when the student needs additional help. FYI, overall I am not a fan of on-line only programs. Don’t let my bias affect you though if you like them.

All went very well, except for the occasional calculational issue. They were better, but still a source of frustration. I was at a park day and started up a conversation with a person who runs homeschool math co-ops and tutors math. I told this story to her and she said she sees this with homeschooled kids sometimes. She gave me the advice that turned math around for us. She suggested I buy Sean a good calculator, one he could still use in college, and have him use it for calculations! The SAT allows calculators, so why not! Overnight, using a calculator, Sean began acing math tests and homework sets!

I am a bit conflicted about math (even though it was and still is my absolute favorite subject). I think math is taught to the detriment of other subjects because it is the most easily testable subject, and that bothers me. There are only so many hours in the day, and I truly believe there should be less time spent on math and more time spent on learning the craft of writing, learning how the natural and physical world works (AKA science), and computer science. I have voiced this to several friends who work in the public school system and they agree with this assessment. But if you think your child might go to college, especially if they are interested in computer coding or science, including medicine, make sure they get the math they need. When I was attending and then teaching college there were two disciplines I observed that weeded students out, keeping some people from realizing their dreams of an intended career. They were math and chemistry! I actually had a friend who was a theater major at San Diego State who ended up dropping out without her degree because she could not pass her math classes. A year of college algebra was the only thing that kept her from obtaining her bachelor’s degree.

Check out the first post in this series here.

Handcrafting High School: Introduction

Handcrafting High School

Handcrafting High School: Year 1, September, October, November, December

         I am the homeschooling mom of a recently turned 15 year-old. I have been handcrafting his education for 9 years. The thing about handcrafting is that there are continuous tweaks to be made. Since I am in the thick of it, I am figuring it out as I go along. I am not sure what these posts will look like. Handcrafting high school will take a lot of planning, much of it to be done as we go along.

This is the first of a series of posts about what we did for the first 4 months of the 2014/2015 school year. I had planned on this just being one post but each core subject has its own story. As I wrote about each one, this post became longer… and longer… and way too long for one post, so I am going to give each of the core subjects its own post. Next quarter, which starts January, 2015 has some new classes. After this series I plan on posting monthly through high school. In each post, I will tell you what we have used and done so far this year. There will be occasional tips and advice, use them if they help, ignore them if they don’t.  I will tell you what materials we have used. I will tell you what I think about the materials we used, but if something works or doesn’t work for us it does not mean anything more than that. I have paid for every single program we used. (HMMN, unfortunately – LOL!)

The Core Subjects: Year 1 – 1st Quarter  
Math Algebra
Computer Science Introduction to Programming with Java
Science Applied Chemistry and Physics
Language Arts Spelling, Grammar, The Mechanics of Writing, The Craft of Writing, Reading/Literary Analysis
P.E. Crew (Rowing)
History World History

         For more information about my philosophy of how we learn in our house refer to my previous posts on Handcrafting an Education. This is the run down on the core for this quarter. Sean’s core subjects are what I refer to as the “coffee” in our recipe. If this looks to you like a school at home schedule, in a way it is. How we implement it and the actual work are more innovative, directed, and dynamic than in traditional school. As I have written before, I am not a labels person and I do not like it when homeschoolers label each other. One size fits all… does not! That is why most of us are homeschooling in the first place! What we have been doing this year has worked very

Sean takes time out in October to go camping for a week at Pismo Beach with HSC with over 100 homeschoolers.
Handcrafting High School: Sean takes time out in October to go camping for a week at Pismo Beach with HSC with over 100 homeschoolers.

well for us. That’s all that matters to me.

Of course the beloved pug Jezzie came camping with us!
Handcrafting High School: Of course the beloved pug Jezzie came camping with us!

My son works at his academics 4 to 5 days a week. He has plenty of time for field trips, camping trips, hanging out with friends, texting, skyping, playing computer games,

and other forms of socialization. He wakes up between 8:30 and 10 and works steadily at his academics until 2:40 when he gets ready for crew. We often listen to a Coursera class in the car on the way to rowing or he reads. He does not have academics to work on in the evenings after crew except for reading or an evening class he attends once a week.

Record Keeping through High School: I highly recommend you begin keeping track of grades, courses, assignments, and extras (like volunteer work and sports accomplishments) at the start of 9th grade if you think your student will apply to 4-year colleges. It will make your life so much easier 3 ½ years later!

I am not a very good record keeper. Part of it is the sheer number of projects I have going on at any one time. That presents a problem for a parent whose child will most likely be applying to 4-year institutions for college. What a headache if I didn’t get control of it though, I would be stuck trying to put everything together at the last minute! I had the good fortune this summer to be speaking at a conference where the vendor MyHomeschoolGrades.com had a booth. I was a bit skeptical about needing their program when I saw the booth and went home without purchasing it. A few days into 9th grade I decided I needed something for record keeping though, so I called John Echols the owner up and bought the program. I am really glad I did. Not only is it really easy to use to keep track of Sean’s classes and grades, but John has helped me in other ways as well. He suggested I keep track of all Sean’s medal from his crew events on his site so they will be included in Sean’s transcript. He had me go back and put in volunteer work Sean had done in 8th grade. He told me about concurrent enrollment. (No I really didn’t know about it, even though I had Sean in an extension course!) On top of all that the customer service is superb. https://myhomeschoolgrades.com/

Check out our blog about how to teach a homeschool science co-op here.

Delhi Day 5, Exploring Temples, post 2 of 2


This is the Bangla Sahib Gurudwara Sikh Temple. But first…

We started the temple tour with a mosque. The mosque is the Jama Masjid, it is the largest mosque in India. It was built between 1644 and 1658 during the reign of Shah Jahan. It is in old Delhi. This is a predominantly Muslim area. In Delhi all the religions live peacefully together. There is a cupboard at the mosque which houses a red beard hair of Muhammad’s, his footprints, and his sandals.

The approach to the mosque is through Old Delhi. This must be where people come to get old car parts.

This is from the steps of the mosque looking back down into Old Delhi.

We have to take our shoes off to go into the mosque.

The photos below are from the courtyard at the mosque.

Check out my shirt. I was taking a nap and was woken up and told I was late to leave for the temple tour.  The women had to wear our salwar kameezs, so before napping I took my top off so it wouldn’t wrinkle. On the way in to the mosque Wendy noticed that my shirt was inside out.  Vicky looked at me and told me to leave it that way until we reached the Hindi Temple.

These are Korans.

Blue lines are painted at the mosque when someone dies.

 The actual mosque, Muhammad’s beard hair is in there somewhere. The call to worship from this mosque  sounded quite different from the one we heard at the mosque in Dubai.

This is Lalit who works for CCS. He is showing us how this sundial works. This is in the mosque.

Everywhere we go, people want a photo with Alecia.

Now we are on our way to a Hindi Temple.

The Hindi temple was so large it was impossible to get it all in one photo. It was beautiful inside, but we were not allowed to take pictures.

Hathi at the temple. Hathi means elephant.

The swastika has been used by people of the Hindi faith for millennia. When it is on a location it draws the attention of the Gods to the location.

The Hindu temple we went to is called the Lakshmi Narayan Temple. The temple has shrines to many of the Hindi deities.

The Hindi temple has a shrine to The Lord Buddha.

A photo as we left the Hindi Temple. Next we went to Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, the Sikh Temple.

The Sikh religion was founded in 1469 A.D. in a village near Lahore, Pakistan. Sikhism is another religion whose basic tenet is tolerance to all people. There is no discrimination between the sexes and there is no caste system.

Sean and Jim had to put on head-gear at the Sikh Temple. How is that for equality! It’s about time.

Vicky is Sikh. His head-gear is way cooler than ours.

I am washing my feet to go into the Sikh Temple.

Going into the Sikh Temple.

We finished the tour with a trip to the food kitchen in the Sikh Temple. Both the Sikh Temple and the Hindi Temple had huge areas set aside for pilgrims to sleep and hang out. This is where the Sikhs feed pilgrims and anyone else who needs food. Anyone of any faith can volunteer at the food kitchen. Check out how huge the pots and pans are.

I want one.  Before leaving I bought yet again another cooking dish. When Jim saw what I had bought he said, “Blair, you are a woman with a lot of pots.” LOL.

I want to volunteer here just so I can play with these big pots, seriously. 

A vat of dal

A vat of roti

This is the food hall where the people from the food kitchen eat.

We got back and the CCS cooks were making naan in this. Okay, forget the pot, I want one of these.

Those are the little naan balls.  He is about to throw the one in his hand into the naan cooker.

Then the naan is thrown into the hot naan maker and it sticks to the side. It is peeled off when it is done.


Check out part one of today’s blog here and tomorrows here.

Delhi Day 5, post 1 of 2


Here we are dressed and ready for our placements. Delhi is a place full of color similar to our outfits. Now, Sean was not feeling well, but decided to go and sit with the kids. He loves this.

Check out the suit on Sean’s left. That little boy is so cute. The volunteers call him suit guy.

This is Richie with some of the kids. Richie is with a group called Children’s Hope. He seems great. He worked on Corey Booker’s campaign registering first time voters in Newark. He just graduated from college and is figuring it out. He hopes to get a job with CAP, The Center for American Progress. He made a point of telling me the slums of Trenton are not that different from Delhi when it comes to opportunity for the children in them.

Rats it is dark. Here I am with the kids I am working with. Richie and I are working with this group. Sean has moved over to the little kids exclusively.

I taught the girls how to take selfies. They were very curious about my phone/camera today.

Anil is the teacher I am helping.

Here are Jim and Alecia with their group.

Next are a series of photos as Sean and I walked through the slum. We went over to check out the computer lab. Unfortunately the students work in this lab later in the day, too late for us to help there. They really wanted our help there, but it was not to be. CCS want their volunteers to take the time to learn about the culture in the afternoon.

The central square

A communal water pump

The walkways are narrow.

I love this color.

Here is the computer lab. About 20 to 30 people use this lab in the afternoon, taking turns to learn basic office skills on these.

Off the main alleyway there are even more narrow corridors.

Back again, isn’t suit guy adorable.

Alecia is so good with the little ones.

Drying wheat to make roti. After this we went back, had lunch, then I took a nap. Later we went on a temple tour, which I will put in another post later today.

Check out yesterdays blog here and check out tomorrows here.