Abstract: In this post, I will complain about stupid, standardized tests and then I will say why my kids take stupid, standardized tests anyway. Be sure to read the article I refer to in the conclusion. It's a gem.
Today's Standardized Tests Don't Have Standard Results
A standardized test is supposed to have standard results. This means that if a child takes a test year after year, there should not be a large jump in scores between one year and the next. Significant influences like a year of one on one math tutoring or a serious head cold on the day of the test may cause scores to go drastically up or down, but otherwise a child who is performing consistently at school will not see significant score changes.
That isn't the case with the current version of our state's standardized test, aligned to national common core standards. My son has taken the test for three years and his scores have been all over the place. He scored highest on the writing portion the year he basically retyped the prompt than the next year when he typed an original response. He scored better on the math section when we were half a year behind in an "un-common core" math curriculum we were using than when he was in public school working on a common core curriculum math up to 90 minutes a day (not including the 30 minutes of math homework he was doing a night). Did I mention that our "un-common core" curriculum only took us an average of 20-30 minutes to complete? (Read some of my thoughts on Singapore Math)
Knowledge and Academic Competency Cannot Be Reduced to a Test Score
Anyone who knows a kid, a real kid with humor and curiosity and passion, knows that test scores are bunk. Let's move on now.
Standardized Tests Stink, But Here's Why My Kids Take Them Anyway
At this point, I should probably mention that we homeschool through a charter school, so if I want to opt out of standardized testing, I have to go through a process and make a big stink. If I absolutely believed that that there was nothing good at all about state testing, I would go through the process an make the big stink. But I don't and here's why:
I don't know about all states, but in California it doesn't matter if you want to be a lawyer or a barber, there is a standardized test between you and that goal. In my job history career, I've taken tests to be a lifeguard, tests on food safety so I could scoop ice cream, a single subject exam in language and literature to qualify for a single subject teaching credential, a test to prove I had competencies in basic skills like averaging test scores and writing a letter--also to be a teacher, yearly tests in CPR and first aid so I could coach sports, and I passed a test to get an insurance license to help my husband out in a new business start up. And every test that I took, with the exception of the life guarding and CPR exams, seemed to be really odd in the ways they measured competency. (The life guarding and CPR exams were the most common sense tests that I have ever taken. Kudos to the Red Cross for having sensible tests for skills that mean a difference between life and death!)
Since the world isn't spiraling towards a more common sense approach to testing, it's safe to assume that tests will continue to be weird measures of competency. Therefore as a part of my kids "hands on education," I want them to have a real, genuine, bona fide, surreal experience of taking a standardized test when it doesn't really matter, because someday, when they get take the test to get the licence for whatever career they want, they won't be set off kilter by the ridiculousness of what they are doing so that they can get the job that matters to them.
I would like to redirect you to an article by poet Sara Holbrook who wrote an article for the Huffington Post titled I can't answer these Texas standardized test questions about my own poems. It's awesome.
PS: In Case You're Wondering...
I don't do much to prepare my son for standardized testing except teach him a well rounded curriculum full of big ideas and good and useful knowledge. I do use testing as an excuse to make my son practice typing which is a skill he is loath to practice, despite the obvious benefits to a dysgraphic. He does remember how hard it is to hunt and peck through the writing section of a test so he does make the effort to apply himself to his typing practice in the weeks before testing.
I'm working on reading a book a week for this year and last month, I only read three, so I came up a bit short. Thankfully, summer is around the corner and summer is for catching up on book goals.
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The Great Divorce by CS Lewis
I started The Great Divorce because I didn't have anything on hand to read one evening and it was a part of a CS Lewis collection that I owned. Since I hadn't heard much about The Great Divorce, I didn't really know what to expect. Boy was I floored, because it was a fascinating book about heaven and hell and the choices that we make that lead us to one final destination or the other. If you've ever heard the reference to CS Lewis stating that souls that go to hell, choose to go there...this is the book it was probably from.
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
I first read The Hobbit over 20 years ago because a friend recommended it and I had been meaning to pick it up again for quite a while because the plot of the movies seemed a bit disjointed in certain parts. Oh, eagles just happened to come along and save our heroes from the trolls. Since, I didn't remember events happening quite so randomly in the book, so I went back to read it and everything in the movies made much more sense. Not to mention that the Hobbit is a delightful read and I have a greater appreciation for the symbolism, wisdom, and humor more now than I remember having 20 years ago. I will be reading the Lord of the Rings series next. Even though I didn't appreciate LOTR as well as many people do on my first read through, I think it's the kind of book that gets better with a reread .
I think I may encourage my oldest son to read The Hobbit this summer in exchange for letting him watch the movie version on his own some lazy week this summer..
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
I have only been recently introduced to Wendell Berry's work. So far I've read some of his essays and poetry. I've also read Nathan Coulter, Remembering, and Hannah Coulter. This month I read Jayber Crow, and so far Jayber Crow has been my favorite of Berry's novels. Wendell Berry writes poignantly about the transition from traditional lifestyles to modern lifestyles. His heroes and heroines learn the hard way that progress really isn't all that it's cracked up to be and they have to fight back against modernity to find that balance of life where they can be truly human.
I appreciated the medieval references in Jayber Crow: his life's journey was compared to Dante's Divine Comedy and he had a love for a married woman that was pure and chaste, much like the courtly love of knights for the queens, princesses, and ladies they served.
What books have you read recently? Do you have any book recommendations for me for next month?
May has been rough on my vocal chords. April left me with a nasty cold that turned into a sinus infection and a windy first few days of May ensure that I am also being blasted with pollen every time I step outside. In the morning, I cannot talk above a whisper. Once my voice warms up, I cannot talk without coughing. It is hard to talk, therefore it is hard to homeschool, but somehow, homeschooling is still happening. Here's how:
Audibooks Save Read Aloud Time
I usually read aloud at least an hour a day. I read the Bible, a history lesson, and a literature selection to everyone. I read picture books to my four and six year olds in the morning. I read bedtime stories. I read math lessons and science lessons when I need to.
When I can't read, there is a huge void in our homeschool day. My oldest, who is twelve can pick up a little of the slack, but not all of it. Luckily, at the beginning of my cold, I picked up the first audiobook of the How to Train Your Dragon series. We had not listened to an audiobook as a family yet, so I wasn't sure how it would be received, well let me tell you it was a resounding success! Everyone in our family from age four to almost forty loves this series. The narrator, David Tennant is a former Shakespearean actor but you probably know him from the TV series Dr. Who. I think it is his Shakespeare experience that really makes this audiobook series shine, because his range of character voices is excellent.
Speaking of Shakespeare, I planned on starting to read Julius Caesar with my son in May, but it's hard to teach Shakespeare with any grace if you are whispering and coughing the whole way through. Luckily, my library carries audiobooks on it's e-site so I was able to check out this all-star version of Julius Caesar. How could I have homeschooled while sick ten years ago?
If it weren't for the library, I may have cashed in on Amazon'sfree two audiobooks offer...
The Internet Saves Math Time
Luckily, it's May so I don't really feel pressured to teach too many new math concepts, but it is still important to practice math. Xtramath and the math games onABCya gave my kids a chance to drill math facts and play with the math concepts that they have learned in a fun and entertaining way. No one complains when I assign reinforcement math games on ABCya instead of starting a new lesson.
Documentaries Save History and Science
I had the kids read or look at science and history book and picture books during the day, but most of their instructional time happened via screens. We watched Born in China on day while I was recovering and I called it a school day after having the kids narrate a few things that they learned. (But did the snow leopard have to be the one animal that died? My cat-loving daughter was heartbroken!) A library DVD rounded out our history for the week. Since we just finished reading about Hercules in D'Aulaires Greek Myths, I put on the Disney version for fun on day when it was 98 degrees outside. ("That was really different than the story you read mom." "Yes, I know.")
Art and PE Take Care of Themselves
On my sick days I can pull out the art supplies and later send the kids outside and art and PE take care of themselves.
And that is how I homeschool when I can barely talk. How do you homeschool when you can't talk?
Sometimes you just can't do everything. Last week, I couldn't start my Finally Friday post and that's OK.
Last week I wrote about how to build a base of knowledge on any subject and then started packing for a camping trip while all three of my kids battled colds. This week, I battled a sinus infection and allergies and tended to my youngest who had an ear infection. My husband helps when he isn't at work, but he is also battling a cold. Obviously, not much got done except for trips to the doctor and to the classes that I could take my two healthy kids to. I finally had to load everyone into the car for a Costco run when we ate the last three slices of bread, the last three eggs and the last two apples for breakfast.
With a sinus infection, it's hard to talk and teach and even harder to read from a book because breathing and talking both have to happen from the mouth, so not much happened according to plan school wise, but school did happen. I'm working on a post about how to continue homeschooling with no voice soon.
Really the only thing that saved me from opening the Pandora's box of letting my kids have unlimited screen time was a set of audiobooks that completely enthralled all of my kids from ages 4-12! Oh, and I am really enjoying them, too!
A few weeks ago, I wrote about why knowledge matters. Today, I am following up that post with a few thoughts on how we can build our understanding in any subject. You won't believe how incredibly simple it is to build expertise!
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How to Build Knowledge in ANY Subject, Drum Roll Please...
You can build knowledge on any topic by reading more than one book about it.
What that's it! You say. You don't need to write a blog post on that!
Yes, I know, but how often do we set out to actually learn something new in our fast paced society? If we get in a fix, we can always just Google it, right? If you read to the end, you will see how having knowledge on any topic is actually really helpful in navigating our quickly changing society. But for now, think about how reading a few books can grow your knowledge base:
If you read three Jane Austen novels, you will be able to have a smart conversation with any Jane Austen aficionado.
If you read a book on both sides of a scientific debate debate, you will be able to see the weakness and strengths of both sides of the argument. Then when an expert makes an expert comment, you will actually be able to judge the validity of what he says instead of going with the theory that you've heard the most or uncomfortably accepting whatever the experts tells you.
Read three books on any history topic and you'll probably be the only expert on that topic in the room at the next social gathering you go to.
Case Study: How My Knowledge About WWII Exploded
Lately, I've become much more knowledgeable about World War II without intending to study the topic at all. In fact most of my life, I've avoided any books or movies about World War II because I knew enough about the war and myself to know that I wasn't ready to look that kind of evil in the eye.
But then I read The Book Thief and even though it was fiction, I was touched by the heroism of the Germans who quietly defied the Nazi party despite the incredible hardship of living in Germany during WWII. I learned about the day to day life of the typical German family, the the cloud of fear they lived under, and the little acts of defiance they did that kept them from being swept away with the dehumanizing evil of the Nazi regime.
After that I picked up Monuments Men from the library because I saw the movie and from the book I learned about a side of the war that I knew nothing about. I had no idea that Hitler was systematically looting the art treasures of the nations for his own super museum, nor did I know he planned to destroy them all if he lost.
Another novel that I read on vacation gave insight into the role of journalists during the war a life in the army camps and yet another book taught me about a heroic band of rustic shepherds and peasants from Crete who held off a highly trained and heavily armed Nazi invasion. I also read part of a biography where I learned about the years before World War II in my home state of California and a bit of the war with Japan. I unfortunately didn't finish the book because it was giving me nightmares, but I was intrigued to learn that some of the toxic philosophies about race that fueled the Nazis worst crimes, were also influential in the United States. When I read a Pulitzer Prize winning novel about World War II, I was standing on familiar ground.
And all of a sudden I realized that my understanding of World War II stretched far beyond Anne Frank and whatever cold, hard facts my high school history teacher taught us. I was more well rounded an an area of knowledge where previously there had only been a few threads of understanding holding together a loose collection of facts. And surprisingly, I didn't have to read a bunch of dry, academic works. All of these books were living books. Books with soul.
Why Does Knowing About World War II Even Matter?
How does this thread of knowledge and understanding help me now, 70 years after the close of World War II?
First of all, some things should never be forgotten.
Secondly, walking through another time period and seeing it through a variety of other people's eyes keeps me from being nearsighted about my own life and time.
Finally, knowing about the past helps me see the present with discerning eyes. Here are a few instances of how knowing about World War II helps me evaluate our present culture:
Learning about Nazi propaganda teaches me that well crafted images and words can sway a public that is taught to be literate, but not taught how to think and discern. Slick advertising images, social media, and hashtags are huge influences. Unfortunately, anyone can make an infographic that looks legit or a meme that misquotes Einstein. We all know how to check sources and do our own research, but how many of us do?
Reading about how the pre-World War II Germans trained a generation of schoolchildren and then turned them into willing soldiers and executioners makes me wary of our public school system. The teachers weren't evil, they were just training kids in the philosophy of the day and doing what they thought was best based on what they knew. Since the curriculum was determined by state departments and not communities, kids were coming of age with values very different from the values of their parents. The values and behavior of the nation changed and it led to a moral break with devastating consequences.
Reading about the philosophical influences and social movements that lead up to the rise of the Third Reich makes me wary about the influences on my society. Whether a philosophy is far left or far right politically, it isn't safe taken to its fullest extreme. This worries me because America doesn't seem to practice moderation lately.
Finally, it is scary how the German people slowly were backed into a corner that they couldn't get out of without devastating effects. They wanted to live their lives and not cause trouble, so as their government slowly pushed pushed boundaries and took power. In short, they acted how I would act. I would have minded my own business and tried to manage my own home well. I would have sighed and hoped the evil I saw before me would pass or that someone would fight my battles for me. But when many people backed in a corner start defying the system in small ways, the system weakens.
That is an important lesson to know.
For Further Reading
One of the biggest challenges in studying ancient civilizations is the difficulty in finding interesting ways to make those time periods come alive. Unless of course, you are just studying Egypt, Greece, and Rome, because there are plenty of activities and books for those civilizations.
While being able to read straight from the Bible is such a great way to study the history of Ancient Israel, I also pulled together a handful of other resources to help spark my kid's imagination.
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Old Testament Days is a well written and well thought out activity book for students of all ages. The activities and readings in this book helped us to understand the life and culture of Old Testament times. Most of the activities were interesting and easy for me to pull off.
Ancient Israelites and their Neighbors is geared to a slightly older audience than Old Testament Days, and also includes activities for the Phoenicians and the Philistines. In addition to activities it also has short readings about the cultures, which was especially helpful in learning about the neighbors, because there isn't that much information readily available for kids about the Phoenicians and Philistines.
We also read the Jesus Storybook Bible as a read aloud during our study of Israel because it does such a great job tying the themes of the whole Bible together.
I used the illustrations from The Family Time Bible as I read the relevant chapters from our Bible because my younger kids like having a picture to look at.
While there are plenty of picture books about Noah's Ark and the Christmas story, I have a few favorites. My favorite Noah's Ark book is this award winning book from Peter Spier and my favorite nativity book is this beautifully illustrated one. The Story of Hanukkah tells the history behind the Maccabean revolt.
Throughout our study of ancient civilizations we have been going to our library to check out relevant videos from the series Ancient Civilizations for Children. Each video teaches how we learn about a specific civilization through archaeology. The Ancient Mesopotamia video covers the Israelites and the Ancient Egypt video also covers the Hebrews time in Egypt.
We also watched Prince of Egypt and Joseph Man of Dreams for fun when we finished reading about Joseph's life and later the Exodus.
Hands On Learning
Apparently you can buy toys for almost any story from the Bible, including the stories of David and Goliath, Noah's Ark, and the Calling of the 12 Disciples. A Bible Trivia Game would be a great review game.
For Further Reading
Homeschooling (and parenting) a dysgraphic well means using all of the resources at your disposal to help your child succeed. Eventually, my son will rely on typing to communicate through writing (thank you God for technology!) but my goal is to help him to someday be able to write legibly when he absolutely needs to.
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The World's Coolest Offshoot of Silly Putty
Crazy Aaron's Thinking Putty is a lot like Silly Putty, except for it is a little stiffer and the colors are amazing. We have Thinking Putty in the small sizes and in the larger sizes. The large size is a handful of putty, so the entire hand gets a workout, not just the finger muscles. Thinking Putty is great for hand strengthening and working out stiffness in hands after writing.
I used to walk my son to the park daily, just so I could get him on the monkey bars. Monkey bars are great for strengthening hands, arms, and shoulders, which are key areas to focus on in dealing with dysgraphia. Unfortunately, with his last growth spurt, my son it too tall for all of the parks with monkey bars near our house, so now we get in a monkey bar workout maybe once or twice a month.
We don't just use binders for organization, we also use them as slanted surface to write on. It's hard for my son to "hook" his wrist on a slant while he's writing like some dysgraphics do.
Graph paper is the best tool I've used for spatial dysgraphia. On regular, lined paper my sons handwriting looks like this:
Please note, he is trying to write legibly and he is not hurrying. Also, the generous spacing between the lines means that this handwriting sample is better than normal.
Simply adding graph paper later in the day and instructing him to put one letter per box resulted in this:
I just created some graph paper notebooking pages for younger elementary students with a 1 centimeter grid. They are available at Teachers Pay Teachers. I also have a set of notebooking pages for Upper elementary and middle school dysgraphic students also.
(I wrote more about how I use graph paper for dysgraphia inthis post)
My son is resistant to using highlighters, but they work. Whenever he does need to fill out a worksheet or use lined paper, if I highlight along the line, he has a visual guide on where to line up his letters. Unfortunately, he resists this modification so I use it a little as possible. Occasionally, I highlight
That's it. My favorite low tech tools to help with dysgraphia. If you teach a student with dysgraphia, what tools do you use?
This week my daughter turned six! In just three years of homeschooling I've learned that while it isn't too hard to get kids to do a little schoolwork on their birthdays, it is nearly impossible to get them to pick up a pencil the day after. New books and toys are just too distracting.
Since my daughter just turned 6, I didn't worry much at all about what she did or didn't do and took some extra, unhurried time helping my oldest son work on an essay. She spent her school hours with self-directed projects: learning simple drawings from this adorable book, arranging her stuffed animal collection on her new dollhouse/bookshelf, and reading a bit of twaddle she requested for her birthday.
She is the kind of girl who enjoys taking time to bring her new things into her life and it was a joy to watch her savor her gifts. God gave her to me for a reason and I have much to learn from her.
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This week, I wrote about what I've learned from homeschooling my son who has Dysgraphia and I made a free printable of poems.
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I've been reading a lovely collection of essays by CS Lewis and I'd like to share his thoughts on reading age-appropriate books. He definitely believed that adults should be free to read fairy tales and children should be free to read challenging books.
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Linked to Weekly Wrap Up.
There's nothing like dealing with a learning disability to to make you fine tune your educational focus. My son's dysgraphia has taught me more about education than any other course, book, or experience I've had.
Choose Quality Over Quantity
I could have told you this before, but I wasn't practicing it. Our first month homeschooling, I assigned everything, because everything was good and useful. It turned out that too much work was too much work, whether it was high quality or not. Since I was conditioned to written output, I required my son to write, too.
I soon had a frustrated student and soon I was frustrated, too.
Only a drastic change would work, so I eliminated all writing that wasn't essential. Everything else was taught through reading, discussion, and hands on activities. By the end of the elimination process, the only pencil to paper work I assigned was in math and composition.
Even math still required a lot of paring down to get to what truly mattered. The math program we had required a lot of work on my son's behalf even if I just assigned the even or odd problems, because in that program, mastery was achieved through repetitively practicing concepts. In order to keep my son's math time at a reasonable about of time, I had to selectively choose the best quality problems every. single. day.
When I finally found the perfect math program for us, the job of choosing quality over quantity was already done for me. I had just the right amount of problems in the text to teach a concept and the workbook had just the right amount of problems to practice a concept. It also included hands on and visual problems that helped concepts stick in a different way than our prior program's daily review.
Worksheets Aren't All That
"Everything I know, I learned from a worksheet," said no one ever. Cutting back on worksheets threw the teaching ball back to my court and also made learning more authentic.
Sometimes the concepts worksheets are created for are ridiculous. You don't need a dictionary skills worksheet to teach a child to use a dictionary...You need a dictionary and an unfamiliar word. Reading comprehension can be determined better and more deeply by a simple conversation over answering a few questions on a worksheet. (Complete sentences, of course!) Working with a handful of change or math manipulatives before putting a pencil to paper to practice math, builds concrete math understanding along with the pencil and paper skills.
It is interesting to note, that every time I cut out a worksheet, I had to put something better in its place. Pulling an oak sapling out of the ground to observe a seed sprouting into a plant and then comparing that to a diagram in a real book is more instructive than a label the parts worksheet about the same concept. A Charlotte-Mason-style oral narration gives me far more insight to what my kids understand from a reading than a set of review questions ever could.
Sometimes the Roundabout Way is the Most Direct Route
Some things just defy "common sense." When it comes to poor handwriting, common sense says "slow down and try harder," but that strategy doesn't work when dysgraphia is a part of the equation.
Trust me. My son got that advice daily in his second and third grade classrooms from well meaning adult helpers and aids. He tried to slow down, but he was already writing slowly. His handwriting got worse despite following the advice he heard from every corner, so he started to dodge any assignment that he suspected someone else would give him feedback on.
What works for his type of dysgraphia and his personality involves a variety of tools not usually associated with a focused effort to improve handwriting: monkey bars, daily art, graph paper, a crazy figure eight exercise, highlighters, and time to write freely, without being judged for his handwriting. When every growth spurt sets him ten steps back with his handwriting and the fruit of his labors may not be evident until well into adulthood, we need patience and faith in the process. We also need hope that everything we do will eventually bear fruit.
Just Because Something is Hard Doesn't Mean There Can't be Joy
Handwriting is my son's greatest challenge. Writing is hard and for him can be physically painful.
But he writes his own adventure novels for fun. He fills composition book after composition book with stories and drawings from his own imagination, and he takes joy in the process. It amazes me daily that his biggest challenge is also his creative outlet.
As I've mentioned before, a learning disability has made me fine tune my approach to education. I can't just toss my son something educational and call it a day, I have to know my goals and my philosophy and carefully choose what I ask him to do for school in light of those goals.
I wrote another article about dysgraphia. To read it follow this link the one below.
You May Also Enjoy
April is national poetry month! To help you share some poetry with your kids, I compiled a page of poetry that you can share with your kids at the beginning of your school days, over a delightful tea, or for a literature lesson. You may use these poems for copywork, memorization and recitation practice, or as inspiration for an art project.
Poetry is a beautiful way to help kids put words to the experiences around them and the sky is the limit on how you can incorporate a poem into your day!
If you like this poetry resource, sign up for the Freely Learned newsletter using the form below. You'll get a free, printable page of poetry every month along with a short newsletter.