Saturday, July 23, 2011

Connecting with Your Audience

It's Saturday night and I just got back from the park with my dog.  It's become a ritual this summer, walking my dog at the park on Saturday nights and listening to the free bluegrass concerts. The band tonight had one of the very best mandolin players I've ever heard. (Keeping in mind I used to play mandolin in a bluegrass band way way back when, I know a good one when I hear one!)  The guitar player was also very good, as was the fiddle player.  Individually, they were some of the best musicians I've heard in a long time.  However, they just weren't connecting with their audience.

The people who attend these concerts are die-hard bluegrass fans.  They don't mind a little country gospel mixed in once in awhile, but they want their bluegrass clean and traditional.  These guys were into jazz....they jazzed up one Doc Watson tune so much I couldn't even recognize it.  Great musicians, but they were either just in the wrong venue, or didn't know how to read the audience to figure out what they wanted to listen to. One by one, people got up and walked back to their cars until there was just a handful of people left.

As a writer, and someone who has taught writing, this is a key theme in helping people turn into great communicators.  You've got to connect with your audience.  I learned this early in my writing career.  I had just finished up my Ph.D., where you have to write very academically, citing everything, and sounding as erudite as possible.  When I first wanted to share my Ph.D. research with the homeschooling community, I wrote a big ol' book called something like "Educational Philosophy and the Home Schooling Movement".  You all remember that one, don't you?  Huge success.

After a bit, though, I re-grouped, started thinking like a homeschooling mom again, and turned it into my Countdown to Consistency workshop, and actually eventually sold out of that big old first printing.  Later, I wrote a very simple book, called "The Relaxed Home School", and the rest, as they say, is history.  But I didn't do well at all until I figured out who my audience was and starting thinking like they did.

That's what this blog is all about...I suddenly had one of those epiphanies where I realized I wasn't connecting with an entire generation of new, younger homeschooling moms, the ones that were raised in an electronic generation.  It isn't easy to start new things when you're a little older, or remain flexible and open to new ideas, but I realized that if I wasn't willing to try something new, the only homeschoolers I'd be connecting with would be "ex" ones....

So whatever you're doing, be sure you're connecting.  Even if it just trying to see life from the standpoint of a teenager, or a mother-in-law, or a husband who doesn't support your homeschooling ideas,  you won't get anywhere if you don't stop for a minute and try walking in that person's shoes.

Okay, time for bed now...I've had a busy day, digging up tulip bulbs to try to trick them into thinking we live in Wisconsin or Michigan.  Hope you all are coping with the heat wave!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Bring Back an Old Concept

When I was young, one of the things I remember my mother telling me, over and over, was the importance of doing things in moderation.  Back then, almost everyone who was older and wiser would say that you should walk the middle ground, avoiding extremism.

To some extent, the world has simply changed.  There are times one must be a bit of an extremist these days because the middle road can lead to compromise.  It's true.  However, I think a lot of us could benefit from bringing back the concept of moderation.

One example is in the area of food and diet.  Some of my friends are really into the "no white sugar, no white flour, everything whole grains" thing. Others are vegetarians or vegans.  Others pig out on just about anything that isn't nailed down in the kitchen.  I've found that, in general, the people who are absolutely adamant about eating healthy at all times often have a real hard time sustaining it over the long haul. Then, when they do succumb to the occasional dish of ice cream, they beat themselves up to the point that they are damaging their own self-esteem. 

There are those, of course, with genuine health concerns.  My daughter used to vaccilate between being a vegetarian, a vegan, diagnosing herself with lactose intolerance, etc.  Finally she discovered her real problem, which is that she is gluten intolerant.  Now, she is again able to enjoy an occasional piece of meat or dairy, but really has to stay away from gluten, or she faces the consequences.  Real health concerns are a whole different issue than what I'm talking about today.

For those of us who don't have a specific intolerance,  I still maintain that moderation is the key.  I've found that as I eat less sugar, I crave it less.  As I get more used to eating fruits and vegetables, I don't miss having meat at every meal.  However, once in awhile, I just really feel like having a candy bar or a bowl of ice cream.  If I allow myself to enjoy these things in moderation, I dont' feel guilty and I don't feel deprived. Plus, I'm able to actually stick with the resolve to eat in moderation....I don't know about you but if I tried to give up all foods I like cold turkey, I'm betting I'd "fail" and then beat myself up about it.

Exercise is another example.  One man I know goes back and forth.  One week he is exercising every day, hiking ten miles, working out on the machines every morning.  Then for a month, it is nothing.  Some of the exercise programs are even labeled "extreme" these days...Personally, I go running at the state park almost every morning.  When I can't go for a couple of mornings, I miss it, but I don't yell at myself all day about what a slug I've been...I just try to get it back on the schedule for the next day.  What I call running is what a lot of people would call bouncing up and down while walking.  Every morning, I'm passed by real runners. You can tell a "real runner" by the spiffy new running shoes they are wearing, the walkman they are listening to (I prefer to listen to the birds in the early morning), and by the fact that I will probably see them for about six days in a row and then never again.  On the other hand, some of the early morning walkers and bouncers have been there just about every day with me for the past two years.  Once again, establishing some moderate form of exercise that you will actually enjoy and be able to sustain over the long haul is usually better than choosing something too extreme for you to continue day after day.

One more example:  technology, especially social networking.  A little is fine, laudable, good, productive, and fun.  However, when it truly becomes your "social" outlet, to the point you have no real friends, or you wind up getting up in the middle of the night and turning on your computer to to let everybody know you are having trouble sleeping, it can easily become an obsession.

So now I'm getting off the computer and going to do my exercises (in moderation). Bye.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Learning about "Social Studies"

On the fourth of July, it seemed like a good time to address a question I'm often asked, which is, "what exactly should we be teaching for social studies?"  I just answered this question this week for a mom who was thinking about high school and wondering what the colleges expect.

As with any homeschooling plan of action, the first thing is to ignore purposefully what the public schools would be doing in any particular grade.  As long time readers know, I am not opposed to everything/everybody that is involved with the public school. My own mom worked there for many years. However, social studies education is one area where the public schools have done a very ineffective job for many years.

So here we are on the 4th of July.  As many people know, recent polls have shown a pathetic level of knowledge of even the basics of American history.  Most young people these days have only a vague idea of what they are supposed to be celebrating on this holiday.  I have known supposedly well-educated young people recently who had no idea who many of the founders of the country were, who thought Thomas Jefferson wrote the Constitution, who didn't have any clue what the Bill of Rights was, and who  genuinely believed that the first amendment said something about the separation of church and state.

None of this is news to the average homeschooler.  Today I want to address a slightly different issue...the issue of ethnocentrism.  Yes, it is important to know about American history, to understand (and actually READ the Consitituition), to know how the U.S government works,  the basics of capitalism, and the ideas of the founding fathers.  However, as Christians, we owe our allegiance to something greater than a country.

Along with the U.S. history in your curriculum, be sure to help your children develop a knowledge of the rest of the world.   One thing I saw, over and over, at our resource center, was that by the time a student came to us for a high school level class, he or she often had huge gaps in their knowledge.  Those unit studies that were popular homeschooling topics, like Romans, or Vikings, or Greeks, or the Civil War, had been covered extensively.  Yet hardly anyone could tell me the names or locations of the countries in South America or Africa, or explain the history of "the two Chinas"....Everybody knew about World War II, and nobody knew about World War I.  Everybody knew about the Great Depression in the United States; nobody knew anything about the major depression that hit in Germany between the wars, resulting in the rise of Hitler.

Of course, this is exactly what makes moms come to me asking for help.  Everybody is deathly afraid that they will somehow "miss" something important when working with their homeschoolers, thereby somehow rendering them hopeless and unable to get into college. In the long haul, what matters most is developing a love of learning in your children and giving the desire and skills to enable them to continue learning throughout their adult lives.  Nobody can know "everything" at the age of 18. (Although most 18 year olds think they know everything...but that's another topic.) However, a little thought and planning can avoid such huge gaps and help provide a basic platform for further learning.

When planning for teaching social studies, I would follow these steps:

1. Forget/ignore what public school instruction is in social studies at a particular age. It doesn't matter, and your own plans will probably be superior to whatever they would be learning in school.  (Note to any public school parents who may be reading this:  Read to your kids, take them interesting places when you can...You can add on what the schools aren't teaching them and have fun doing it!)

2. Whatever you do, try to make it relevant and fun.  History can be the driest subject in the world or the most exciting one.  Start with local history, consider reenactments or theatre involvements, go on interesting field trips, read good books instead of textbooks.

3. When dealing with children 12 and down, there is nothing wrong with doing this a bit "hodge-podge"...but a good time line on the wall might do wonders in helping to tie things together.  Also, whatever you are studying, start with local, go to U.S., but don't ignore the rest of the world!  Learning about other cultures is vital in today's world.  Two of my own children live outside the United States; all but one have done extensive traveling.  I didn't leave this continent until I was in my fifties.  My mother never left the U.S.  My grandmother never left Wisconsin.  Things are changing, and we have to change along with it!

4. When the kids are about middle school age it is a good time to do some subjects more linear...U.S. history from the beginning to current, a good overall view of world history and geography, perhaps some emphasis on missions work.  Middle school years are a good time to prepare them for high school level work.  Emphasize the skills they are developing (research, public speaking, reading and writing, thinking), as well as  the specific knowledge base they are developing.  Both are important at this stage.

 5. When high school comes around, the typical social studies curriculum includes U.S. History, World History, World Geography, and Political Science/Economics.  Most homeschoolers already know a lot of U.S. History by then, so my tendency is to go heavier on the more difficult subjects in high school, such as economics, Constitutional law, and World History.  This doesn't mean you have to switch to boring methods of instruction...it just requires a little bit more planning, which should always involve the students at this stage.

6.  No matter what the age of the student, textbooks are always the worst kind of instruction in this area.  The best is personal involvement, (like real family trips), the second best is reading a good book written by someone who is actually interested in a particular topic. Good quality videos can also provide interesting vicarious experiences.  When I was teaching a world history class at the resource center, I always got the video of the bomber pilot who bombed Hiroshima discussing his experiences that day.  (For those of you in Georgia, it is available at the Cobb County Public Library). Just a little more interesting than reading about it in a textbook!

For those of you who have coops or resource centers where you can have group experiences, one final suggestion....my social studies classes at the resource center were also always my thinly-disguised speech classes.  Over and over, my old students who have now graduated college, come back and tell me this was the best thing we did for them there.  In middle school, they were expected to do group oral projects; in 9th grade they began taking ten minute pieces of class to teach, and by their senior year they were each teaching two complete classes a year.....An important part of this, I believe, is that they got to choose their own topics...It is always much easier to learn to speak in public when you are talking about something that you are interested in yourself!  I'm a great public speaker when I'm talking about homeschooling, but put me up there on a topic of someone else's choice, I'd probably be horrible.

Okay...way too long a post on a holiday weekend.  Get out there and enjoy the day with your families!