One of the things that I found frustrating in public school was that when we returned from summer vacation, we did not start right back where we left off the previous June. In math especially, we always went back to what we had been doing at least a month before the end of the previous year. At the time it seemed really annoying to do this review, but now I get it. It is the repetition that makes us proficient with the topic.
Many of us are familiar with how difficult it is to become fluent in a foreign language; you must master the vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Practice is the key to language fluency. No one would listen to a two-year-old and think, “It’s a shame they are no good with languages.” Yet many people are quick to say, “I am no good at math.” Or “I could never do that, I am just not a good writer.” It is sad to hear this attitude adopted. Practice through repetition and application is the key to improving your proficiency in almost any life skill. Homeschooling parents are tasked with helping their youth become proficient in a wide range of life skills from reading and writing to tying their shoes and brushing their teeth.
Part of proficiency comes from exposure to new topics and applying existing knowledge to new topics. I would like to give you a glimpse of how the Choice programs at OC are working to expose young people to new content and to present academic challenges for practicing their skills, as well as offering opportunities to practice collaboration with their peers. This is OC’s role in the partnership with parents, helping the young people on the journey towards proficiency.
Sometimes content in the Choice Program offerings is totally new to youth, like pounding metal in blacksmithing or using a microbit controller to create an art piece. Other times content builds on previous learning. This fall I facilitated “It’s a Bug’s Life,” an opportunity to look into the fascinating world of invertebrates. The diversity of animals that are classified invertebrates allowed me to build on youths’ existing knowledge and expose youth to new information. For example:
I can’t think of an instance where my goal as a learner is to become barely capable; I would much rather fully understand a topic, to master it. But what is mastery? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “possession or display of great skill or techniques.” This is the sort of goal we want to set for our young people’s education. The Choice program gives young people the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of a subject area. For instance, in the Woodshop a young person using approximate measurements is likely to find that the bearing does not fit the wooden fidget spinner he is creating. When the youth in Choice I: It’s a Bug’s Life (8-10-year-olds) were measuring and comparing the length of their own jumps to that of grasshopper jumps, I saw lack of development in a variety of areas from reading ninety-one on the tape measure and writing 901, to just not having experience with the process of calculating an average. Through the activity youth were shown a reason to want to develop their skills further. By Choice III (13-16 years old) the young people have developed mastery of these mathematical operations, so for them the challenge was to use ratios to determine what the length of their jumps would be if they had the jumping abilities of a grasshopper. As I have said, when I was in school the process would have involved repetition of numerous worksheets to determine whether I had reached mastery of the concept. If you are looking for OC to provide this level of repetition to ensure mastery of a subject you will be disappointed. We do pack a lot into the time we are together each week, but it is only five hours (or ten or fifteen). What we do offer is opportunities to practice different applications and gain exposure to new situations. And, the good news is that there are 160 hours in each week: ample time for youth to hone their (newfound) skills and engage in the repetition that is necessary for true mastery of a concept, should they wish to do so!
In addition to the academic skills, we are always striving to help young people develop their interpersonal skills too. I am not as naive as to say that homeschoolers are not socialized and that only OC has the answer to helping young people work with others. Yet we know that working with others takes practice. It starts when we are very young as we learn to take turns on the playground or share a toy with a friend. By the time youth are in the Choice Program we are challenging them to collaborate as a group to accomplish a goal. During the Ancient Rome offering, young people worked in groups of four to recreate an aqueduct out of clay. In the Lego Mindstorms, offering young people worked in pairs to program a robot to follow a maze, shoot a disc at a target, or push another robot out of an arena.
Sometimes collaboration takes place during discussions. In the Mathematical Roadtrip, offering young people were invited to share their thinking on how they would solve a mathematical curiosity like this: Leo the rabbit is climbing up a flight of ten steps. Leo can only hop up one or two steps each time he hops. He never hops down, only up. How many different ways can Leo hop up the flight of steps? Provide evidence to justify your thinking. Pondering these riddles, the members of the group were given time to share and demonstrate their thinking, building on their understanding and depth of knowledge collectively. They listened respectfully as each person shared his or her thinking on possible ways to solve the challenge. Part of the respectful listening and sharing that we practice at OC is what we call a Balanced Response*. In a Balanced Response you offer positive feedback—“I appreciate _____ about the idea”—and then phrase concerns as “How to...” This teaches the value of all viewpoints and turns questions into a problem solving mode. Again, we practice this in all of our programs, striving towards proficiency in responding to life in this supportive mode.
Another way that we promote collaboration and appreciation is with Word Presents. Youth and Facilitators write Word Presents to each other at the end of each program year specifically and when so moved at other times during the year. This is also a skill that requires practice. Recognizing the positive in ALL of your group members becomes easier with practice.
I am always amazed at how long days turn into short years when you are raising children. My oldest, Katie, is twenty-five (and a 2010 OC graduate). Despite her advanced years our conversations often revolve around her workplace conflicts. I am always tickled when she reports that she used a Balanced Response to iron out her role in a group project or when she relates how touched a fellow coworker was when presented with a Word Present. Collaboration is a lifelong skill useful in so many situations, be it in the workplace or with family. For more than a decade I have admired Katie’s artistic abilities. She often worked in child-care during OC’s Staff Development and would create drawings for the young people to color. They would watch as she sketched and say, “You’re so good, how do you do that?” Her answer was always the same: “I have a lot of practice.” Repetition does not need to be a huge worksheet of problems, but it needs to be a part of our young people’s lives to develop proficiency. The Choice program offerings are a chance for young people to assess the areas in which they have mastered a concept and areas in which there is room for development.
*Words in BOLD can be found in the OC Glossary of Terms, available in the OC Parent Resource Library.