Friday, January 6, 2012

Answer to Questions About Our High School (Seriously By Far the Longest Post I Have Ever Written). . .

Here is an example of a project that one of my daughters created
for one of her high school science "courses" (ornithology).
(Above are just a few sample pages from the book.
It's actually fairly long.)
There was a nest box hanging inside my fenced herb garden, and one day this daughter,
who happened to be studying birds and doing a lot of bird-watching,
noticed some bird-activity going on at the nest box. She investigated
and realized that a pair of house wrens were building a nest.
She decided to document the process--from nest-building to babies flying away--
with photographs, artwork, and a journal. This book is her finished product.
The actual book is quite beautiful and interesting.
The photos don't at all do it justice. I treasure this book.
(Sorry the pictures are of such poor quality. They are all I have on hand.)

Well. I must say I have really tried to write concise but thorough answers to the questions that have been asked, and I have struggled to get it done. Today I will attempt to put at least a few notes down for each question. I will admit that when I said to “ask me anything!”, I was just thinking of little light questions, but of course (I should have known), if there’s something you’ve been wanting to know from me for awhile about something I’ve posted in the past, you would ask for a bit more information regarding those things. And I don’t mind at all that you asked, by the way!

I think the reason it has been hard to answer the questions is because it was hard enough for me when I tried before, and when I was posting in the summer I had waaaaay more time on my hands to think about the answers and then to write about them than I do now. Attempting to do this while my mind and attention have been on family and the holidays has been even more difficult than before. Plus, this winter break I’ve tried to create some space between the computer and me because I do so much of my homework and so many assignments on the computer or online during the term. And, like I said, I’ve just been focusing on other things.

But here I go. A few notes that will surely be insufficient:

[Back after writing this post to laugh at myself for saying that! This turned out to be one really long, super-jabbery ramble with quite a lot of redundancy (actually, it's a gigantic mess!) that I hope is not too unwieldy to manage. Now that I am finished, I have skimmed quickly over what I have written, and I don’t know if it will make sense to you, but here’s crossing my fingers that it will make some sense because I don’t have time to edit the post to make it clean and tight (and brief). I guess the other questions I meant to answer will have to be addressed in the next day or two--but not at nearly this length!--because I can’t write any more today! School starts again on Monday, and I won’t be posting any more from then on.]

Here goes. Regarding our high school homeschool:

I need to start by saying that I am not in any way, nor do I want to be, a homeschool “guru.” What was important to me during our high school years does not reflect what seems to matter to many or most other homeschoolers. I highly recommend looking around the web and at recommended books to help you think about your high school years. Definitely don’t follow our pattern. It won’t work for you. Pray, read, think, seek wisdom from many others, and then make your own pattern!

When we homeschooled, there were a number of books available to help homeschoolers navigate the high school years, but there must be so many more out there now. I don’t know what those books were, but I read a lot of Cafi Cohen. I don’t know if she’s still out there, but I gleaned quite a lot from her books regarding how to think about high school transcripts, college, and more.

My absolute favorite book to read (more for fun than actual guidance) just because it focuses on the unorthodox and it rebels against the traditional system is Cool Colleges for the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming, and Just Plain Different by Donald Asher. Super fun to read if your mind doesn’t like to travel well-worn educational paths. Four years of college on a sailboat? An elite four-year college on a working ranch? Schools that study one subject at a time? Or even traditional colleges? It’s all here, and I think it’s really fun to read!

Another interesting book discusses the huge amount of pressure that is put on high school kids to jump through hoops and exert all of their focus and energy into getting ready to apply to elite colleges. It is Denise Clark Pope’s Doing School.

And for those who feel rebellious about the college hoop-jumping game and who think (about elite schools) “Ivy-Schmivy-Whatever!” but who have super-smart, academically inclined kids: Harvard Schmarvard by Jay Mathews is interesting.

I read these books a long time ago (my kids are ages almost 25, 26, 28, 29 now), and there might be new books available that are as good or better (not that these are necessarily what most people are looking for anyway!). Plus, these books are not so much how-to’s as how-not-to’s or what-else-is-possible. And they are really for those who see the pressure of playing the college game and opt not to.


You might decide you want to put a lot of emphasis on preparation for tests: PSAT, SAT, SAT II’s, ACT, AP, and more. This is a way to get great college scholarships. But I don’t think a test prep book is the best route to take if you want to do well on admissions tests (I’m talking about the SAT or ACT). I think that doing well will come more from the way you approach long-term day-to-day learning and living in your home than from specific test-prep. Has a high level of thinking (partially developed by lots of quality reading, discussing, writing, and doing) been established in your home environment? We can create an intellectual value-system, mindset, and atmosphere in our homes that will allow kids to develop excellence, and this tends to translate very well to testing and college success (keeping in mind that all kids are different and have different inclinations).

But the home and family atmosphere I’m talking about should not be established just so that our kids will do well on tests and in college. For me, it’s really about life. It’s about honoring God by developing the gifts and talents He has given us. But when your kids are in high school, if you want to stress the tests (which I am not going to say is at all wrong!), start looking hard at those tests and consider how you can work to achieve the kind of scores you want. I’m sure there is a lot of information out there about this, so go out and find it if you want it!

We didn’t do that. :-) We didn’t emphasize test prep or tests because we wanted to continue investing our time and energy into the interests, pursuits, and passions the kids were already enjoying. We knew that when our homeschooling days ended, the opportunity to devote our time to these pursuits would never be as free and easy again. And since I was, and am, convinced that interest and passion leads to the best kind of education, why shouldn’t we continue going after it while there was still time?! Those days were relaxed, joyful, disciplined (passion doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge amount of blood, sweat, and tears involved in learning; in fact, there might be more!). I am very happy with the route we chose to take, and I look back at those truly warm, wonderful homeschooling years with a grateful heart.

(Enough with the sentimentality!) What we did was good enough for us. We didn’t focus on test prep, but I did buy a book of real SATs that had been taken in previous years, and the kids tried some of those tests just to get familiar and comfortable with it. Two kids hadn’t done any math for two years when they took the SAT, so I bought a SAT math-prep video course, but it didn’t get used (of course! I should have known this would be the case). Only one of my kids took the three-part SAT that included writing, and she practiced essays from a few online prompts just to get used to the parameters of writing for the test. And we did buy one child a test prep book because she was rusty with math, but I don’t think she looked at it much or found it helpful. She skimmed over her last math book (pre-calculus) and that was good enough for her. That was about it for our “prep.” Pretty much, the kids kept doing what they were doing, and when it came time to take the test, they just went and took it.

And while their scores were not perfect, they were excellent. None of the kids took AP tests, which could have gotten them college credit before ever setting foot on campus. They didn’t do a lot of things other high schoolers do. But you might really want to do those things. They might be just right for your family. By focusing on these tests, you might reduce the number of years it takes to finish college, open doors for admissions to more colleges, and earn great scholarships.

But my kids got terrific academic and leadership scholarships, too, without the focusing on tests (they also did extremely well in college). Their SAT scores were in a range high enough to get them into any college in the US had they wanted to pursue that, but it takes a lot more to get into elite colleges than excellent transcripts and SAT scores. It takes having true passion. It takes being well-rounded. It takes a bit of uniqueness. And it requires logging lots of “service” hours and projects. I think we could have presented a great case that we accomplished all of that. But no matter how you look on paper, there are no guarantees.

In my opinion, college admissions has become a huge, time-consuming game that has become more confusing and overwrought than ever. I’ve watched the process in the last few years (through others), and it strikes me as really ridiculous. If you want to play the game, spend the money, invest the time, and jump through the hoops, do it. I certainly wouldn’t try to talk you out of it. But it surely wasn’t for us, and I would feel even more strongly that way today for us (not for you!). Sorry. I have a hard time holding back my opinion on that one.

At the same time, if your child has an outstanding skill/passion in an area that is really prodigious (not just “mom-and-friends-are-super-impressed”)—in music, arts, sports, writing, involvement, dance, science or tech, math, or anything—the student will very likely be able to get into any school (even the most elite) that is looking for those kinds of students. Many, many perfect SAT scores get rejected at colleges across the country, while kids with passion and special abilities can get in with less than stellar (otherwise) admissions packages.

(Did I say this was going to be brief?! Haha. I’ve bare gotten started and look at me go! And, by the way, don’t take it for granted that I know what I’m talking about. These are just my opinions. Do some reading!)

So, what did my family do in high school? We kept doing what we were doing before high school. The kids continued learning what was interesting to them. We still plugged away at the three basic daily expectations we’d always had—reading, writing, math—but we began to create more of an end-of-the-road strategy. When they approached high school, I sat with each child to talk about what their focus might be. I spent time when the kids were younger reading fairly voraciously about high school and transcripts and what colleges wanted to see on their applications, and I came up with a sort-of plan. I knew I wasn’t going to suddenly start giving assignments to the kids or using curricula (unless they wanted to), so we discussed how we could continue on as we had before and, yet, at the end of high school, be able to create a transcript that reflected an education that colleges would like.

Some unschoolers (though I wouldn’t say we were entirely that) don’t create transcripts. They find other ways to approach college admissions. I, though, believed that we could create transcripts fairly easily and naturally without intruding too awful much into our daily learning rhythms. Plus, it just seemed time to hone in on a goal and end up with a sort or product/record of what had the kids had achieved, and were achieving. And my kids were fine with doing this, though they didn’t look at the transcripts or test scores as saying anything important about their education.

Based on what I read at web-pages and in books, I created a list of course categories and the number of courses that would need to fall under each of these categories in order to create the kind of transcript I wanted to see. It gave us some new direction—a way to home in on a finish—but the path was still pretty loose and free, and it didn’t really alter much as far as our day to day homeschooling rhythm went. We did realize that we would need to include more pointed science studies (two lab courses were minimum requirements at the time). There would need to be a certain number of history courses, English courses, foreign language credits, etc., on the transcripts. (If you have high schoolers and are reading this, be sure to look to see what the expectations are nowadays. I’m not writing everything down, and they also might have changed.)

Instead of me guiding their high school educational journey, the kids and I talked about the inclinations they’d always had in the various subject areas, and we began to think about them in terms of high school credit. In many cases, the kids had already gone well into college-level study in these areas of interest, so this really wasn’t overly challenging. For those not as inclined toward traditional science studies, there are things like botany, ornithology, meteorology, geology, and on and on. And you can turn these into lab sciences, too, without using chemicals, test tubes, and microscopes. Think creatively. (My kids did some pretty cool projects and studies that they loved for their science “labs,” and these were accepted without reservation by all colleges.) If colleges can offer a science course in the geology of national parks or the biology of cancer, why can’t we?! In fact, it was looking at college course offerings that gave me ideas for titles of courses for my kids. We got creative, we made sure the studies were very in-depth, and we had a lot of fun.

My kids got credit in things like Egyptology (and believe me, this one was well, well-deserved!), JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, Medieval Literature, Classical Mythology, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Jane Austen, 1920's and 1930's America, WWII (my son read literally 100's of books over the years), and so much more. There was something about woman writers (maybe woman poets?) of the 1920’s. The kids had done a lot of reading about the classical world (and actually all periods of history)—history, literature, philosophy, art, etc., so we created courses from those areas that reflected individual interests and emphases. For science there was physics, biology, human physiology, ornithology, botany, and lots more. I’m having trouble remembering what the course names were (there were some unique, good ones!), but hopefully you get the idea.

We read books, did projects, used resources like Teaching Company CDs (whichever ones the kids wanted to use), had endless discussions about books and history and whatever was being learning, connected with experts, went interesting places, and lots more.

Let your imagination run wild. A child doesn’t need to study English I, II, III, and IV. Be creative. What is interesting to your child? Go with it! And for history/social studies? What about a deep study of the impact on culture of social media? Or what about an elective course in dog training? Or a specific area of photography? Or herbalism? Or business? Or geneaology? Or fashion? Or what about a “PE” credit in hiking/climbing mountains? Or skate-boarding or biking? How about spelunking? Or stamp-collecting (whatever it is called)? Or what about culinary arts (for the passionate baker or cook)? Or Edmund Spenser? Or the Brontes? What about the history of nature writing (or anything else)? Or what about a general science credit in nature on your own property or neighborhood (even in a city, which could be very interesting!)? How about hermeneutics or apologetics or any part of the Bible as literature? What about any culture that exists now or existed in history? Or what about virtually anything?! What are your kids interested in? If a student has a deep interest in a tiny or obscure historical time/person/event/philosophy, this is wonderful. Let him have fun becoming an expert on that. Make it a course on the transcript.

One of my kids got a credit for her study of (it seems funny to call it a study!) the Russian Romanovs (can’t remember how we titled that course), but my daughter had developed true expertise, and her deep study of this one thing led to a huge study of the Revolution, the “isms” of those years, reaching back to Marx and forward into the 20s and 30s and well beyond (on both ends of the timeline). All of this was interest-fueled and surprisingly in-depth. It encompassed people, events, social life, philosophy, psychology, economics, politics, art, music, literature, music, fashion, and so much more. Deep learning can’t help but ripple out further and further, with each new interesting thing creating its own ripples. A whole education can develop this way! Passion takes learning so very much beyond what would occur with mom-given assignments. So, the learning grew and grew, and the reading and research that was done led to enough study to create more than one course out of all of this. (And I have not come close to doing justice to the study referred to in this little paragraph!)

This is how we wanted high school education to take place. For us, it was to be a bigger, more sophisticated, deeper and further-reaching exploration and study of the world than I thought we would accomplish with assignments. For us, when learning happened in this “natural” (but there was vision, discipline, work behind it) manner, it happened deeply and with great interest and passion. Again, one interest is not just an isolated thing. It ends up becoming an education. Or it should. And when a child is in control of following his or her nose in this passionate, curiosity-driven, interest-led way, it is a wonderful thing to watch!

Record keeping?

I simply had a notebook for each child where I kept track of what they did during their high school days. The notebooks weren’t journals; there were no descriptions in it, really. I just kept lists (with enough info to remind me of what was happening). They were only for the purpose of listing everything they had done, read, watched, who they had connected with, and where they had gone-- out in the yard or in the bigger world—to learn more.

I didn’t always keep track daily (in fact, I rarely did). Sometimes I would pick up the notebooks and play catch-up. But I kept a casual eye and mind on these lists, looking for trends. When it looked like a particular interest was approaching what might merit a high school credit, I would talk to the kids about what reading or project or type of writing might be good to do in the future. I would look into things, and they would look into things (they tended to do this all along anyway because they were interested in what they were learning), and we would brainstorm. Sometimes they liked my suggestions or ideas, and sometimes the ideas didn’t align well enough with the kids’ internally-driven learning trajectory, so it was ultimately up to them to decide where to take their learning and what to do.

The kids knew they were expected to collect a certain number of credits for their transcript, and this was a much more motivating way for them to do it than for me to say, “Here, do this.” So, there weren’t any battles over this. I should add that, sometimes, we created new courses of study entirely with the transcript in mind, but they were based on the kids’ inclinations and what sounded interesting to them. Some of these were dropped, and some of them were happily pursued. Whatever our initial intentions were for these courses, though, the end product always looked quite different from that, which is as it should be!

This was all pretty low-key and non-stressful, and it worked for us, but, as I write it, I don’t know how this vision would work for anyone else. It might. It might not. It depends on your family lifestyle, the way you (as parents) live your lives in front of your kids, your homeschool style, the atmosphere of your home, the value you place on intellectual life, and your own, individual, wonderful kids.

The transcripts I created were based on a form (or a synthesis of two or three forms) that I found online. I needed something that didn’t list courses in terms and years because a lot of my kids’ credits were earned over the span of four (or more) years. Or maybe two math levels were done in what would normally be one term. So, the form I created listed credits/courses under subject headings rather than under separate semesters.

I didn’t think about grades until I made the transcripts. Then I just assigned them. Who was going to tell me I couldn’t?

You can order beautiful diplomas online if you want one, or if you end up, for some odd reason, needing it. We didn’t. For college, though, you will need a transcript. OR you can send your kids to a local community college, and in two years, they can earn a high school diploma and an AA degree which means they are ready for their final two years at a four-year college. This can save a whole bunch of money! But it wasn’t for us because. . . well. . . I hope I made it clear above how we wanted to spend our high school days learning at home. It wasn’t by doing someone else’s assignments or by preparing for tests.

Let’s see. Anything else? Maybe just a few random notes. We kept up our morning get-together-at-the-table after chores and breakfast because it remained a good jump-start to our days in the high school years. It was time to read the Bible together, to talk about our day, and to do anything we happened to be doing together at the time. Sometimes there were little things we’d do for fun, like for a while, we did a puzzle of the day (we solved them in groups) during that morning time.

The only thing I can think of that we did together for an extended length of time was art history, and it was about as low-key as could be. I had the Cornerstone curriculum and portfolio (the prints are really nice!). We’d keep whatever print we were studying out on display. We learned really just to look quietly and think about the art in our own way, and we were given a very small amount of information/philosophy of the artist and period of art in order to gradually put together a big-picture of art history. It was a very slow-going, easy approach. We had lots of art history books around the house, and we loved visiting art museums when we could. It was the books and museums that contributed the most to the kids’ love of art. And love leads to individual study, which was very much the case with my kids and art history. They all had their little niche of what was interesting and what they loved, and they pursued it on their own.

I think this is quite long enough! Haha. When I think I’m going to be brief, I can’t help be windy and confusing! I hope you can get something out of this post because I really don’t have time to edit it. And I hope it clears some things up and answers some questions regarding our high school homeschool. (Gosh, we had fun!)


  1. Hah! Now I am ecstatic. I was SO HOPING you would post more about high school, but I couldn't figure out what exactly I wanted to ask!

    Thank you!!

    You don't know me, I'm sure, since I don't think I've ever posted on your blog before, and I a few times wanted to email you but couldn't figure out how. I'm a home educating mama of 8 (in my 25th year). So I'm an expert, right? I've graduated 4 (oldest is 30), and the 5th is taking a "post-graduate year," so I should know ALL about it.

    But somehow, the later batch of children is different than the earlier batch, and I want to do things differently. I actually am very happy with what we did with the first 4 to 5 -- mostly -- BUT it doesn't seem right for the youngest 3 (all girls, the oldest of whom will be in high school next year).

    And I have really enjoyed musing over what you have done. Thank you SOOOO much!


  2. I always love reading about other people's homeschooling journeys. Ours lasted about 16 years and took many different directions. My two boys were very cooperative and used more of a textbook approach. Then we got more eclectic and relaxed and when my daughter came along she decided she wanted to be an unschooler and do 4-H, taekwondo, gymnastics, volleyball and anything that allowed her to run around. She also did public school in 10th and 12th grades, which forced her to do some catch-up, but she wanted to graduate with all of the girls she had played sports with since 7th grade!

    My kids are 29, 27 and 20 and all fantastic people who are following their individual paths and who all love God. They've each done various types of post-secondary education and they know education doesn't have to be done a certain way. I'm glad that homeschooling has shown them that learning is a lifelong pursuit. I'm blown away with what God can do if we're willing to be obedient!

  3. Thank you for posting this! This is so exciting to read, all the possibilities...Such a beautiful thing to see in homeschooling: different approaches for children, families. And I think every family is typically more of an eclectic blend of homeschooling styles. That's just my take. I love reading and hearing about other journeys because it is so inspiring and gets the wheels turning.

    Susan, I do hope that you will leave this up. So that we can chew on this periodically when we need to.


  4. "But here I go. A few notes that will surely be insufficient." and "Seriously by far the longest post I have ever written." Ha! I thank you Susan for all of it. Much to think and pray about. And study. I have lots of questions still. But you know that. I will just bite my tongue and be thankful.:D Seriously. I am so thankful for all you've done here and at your other blogs. I've been checking here multiple times a day to see if you've posted and was so excited when you did. Still hoping for anything else you want to say, and so sorry you're leaving here. But GOD is good all the time. And I trust Him. And if you ever feel right about blogging again, would you tell it here? How would we know?


  5. Thank you, Susan. I read every word- and I adore your daughter's project. So artfully done.

    I love the idea you have shared of giving our children the ability to pursue their passions and interests and run with it. That is what I hope to do for my own kids (as I see particular interests take root, and more as they get older)- but I love seeing practical examples of how that is done.

    Thank you, again.


  6. Susan--I want to leave a quick comment about this post before you remove it. I actually think it is a great post filled with wonderful and practical tips and insights. I am in wholehearted agreement with everything you said and so wish that every child could experience the type of education you have described. My oldest has just about finished off his high school homeschooling and has just applied to several colleges, so it will be interesting to see how the different colleges respond to the application he's put together. From what I've read regarding college admissions, it really does seem that they are becoming more interested in the unique qualities of a student. (Read: Demonstration of a real person who has pursued their interests creatively and excellently. And while test scores certainly factor into their decision, there is so much more that they consider.) It is encouraging to hear of your childrens' successes while choosing to deviate from the norm. Thank you so much for taking the time to put out much needed information. Praying God's best for you. I will miss you!

  7. Dear Susan, What strikes me most here, is the underpinning of love and respect - for God and how He made your children, and for each other. I think you illustrate this as a basic principle from which everything else in a home flows most freely and beautifully including education. If those two are in place, I don't suppose there are many other things that could go wrong, really!! Thank you very much for this.

  8. Don't you dare remove this post!!! :) :) :) It's so wonderful with so many great things and insights...I want to "pin it" and store it in Pinterest!! Love you, brilliant lady.

  9. I agree, don't remove it~ I just spent more than enough time trying to copy and paste it into pages with pictures to save. lol. Just leave it up, it's good. : )

  10. Let me join the outcry here too! Just leave it up. :D I wholeheartedly agree with the other ladies above me, and probably with those who will follow me as well! ;D


  11. Thank you for leaving this post up! It speaks straight to my heart. And the way you write is the way I think, so all is good ;)

  12. Thank you so much, Susan! Our first child is in 9th grade this year, so this high school business is often on my mind! I copy and pasted the post in case you removed it before I could read all the details. Thank you for all the sharing you have done over the years. May God richly bless you!

  13. So thankful for your blog and this post. I read over your posts many times. It's like a soft blanket, a warm cup of coffee and a comfy sweater all rolled into one! Thanks for leaving it up.