Seminar Handouts from Anchorage, AK

As promised, here are the notes from my presentations in Anchorage, AK April 2014:

8 Reasons Kids Learn Best At Home

Raising An Independent Learner

Developing Motivation

Motivating the Reluctant Learner

Creative & Critical Thinking Skills

21st Century Learning

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Field Trips: Let’s Go!




By Joanna Breault, contributing writer


 Finally, spring is here! If your winter was like mine, you’re greeting the warmer weather with something close to child-like giddiness. Instead of fighting spring fever in yourself and your kids, go with it! Get out of the house and do something fun — and, yes, educational. Field trips are a great antidote to the homestretch blahs, and now that the weather is nice, they feel a lot more doable. 


Things to keep in mind…


First of all, embrace the truth that field trips are an important part of your kids’ education.  You won’t have fun if you’re stressed about the workbooks pages you’re not doing. The hands-on, up close experiences that field trips afford are priceless; they bring book lessons to life and they are the moments your kids will remember. Field trips reinvigorate moms as well as kids — as long as you’re convinced that they are worthwhile and don’t feel like you’re getting away with something. 


For younger kids, focus on teaching about the local community. The fire department, a botanical garden, the doughnut shop, the police station — these can all be memorable destinations as long as you have an interesting guide. Call around and find out which sites and businesses do tours for little ones. Many even have hands-on activities they do for younger visitors. 


For older kids, connect your trip with your studies. Choose a historical site that corresponds with this year’s era. You can do the same for science — if you’ve studied astronomy, find a nearby observatory; if marine biology, visit an aquarium. If there aren’t good options for curriculum tie-ins nearby, create a simple unit study and then go on a field trip as the payoff. There’s nothing wrong with studying something for a few days and then following up with a trip. Chose an intriguing destination, check out related books and DVDs, pore over websites, absorb all you can, and then — hit the road! It’s amazing how tour guides go out of their way for kids who show interest or understanding. 


Here’s something important — think it through. Envision the whole day. Ask yourself what you’ll need to keep any stroller/carrier-bound siblings happy, what kind of snacks or drinks you’ll want, how much cash to have on hand, and how long you should stay (even the most focused kids max out after several hours). There’s nothing worse than being harried (or hungry or late or lost) on a field trip because of a failure to plan. 


If you can, have an expert join your crew. If you go with someone who loves the topic or activity, even field trips can be to a commonplace site will be enlivened. Even if you’re going to a destination that has paid tour guides, bringing along a passionate friend who engages children well can make the experience unforgettable. 


Finally, reinforce afterwards. Discuss your experiences over the dinner table as a family. Have the kids draw a picture illustrating what they saw, or make a video for their grandparents about the day, or dictate so you can type up their words for a “field trip journal.” Just make sure the debriefing doesn’t feel like a chore. 


Now get out there! And if you need out-of-the box ideas, check out 101 Places You Gotta See Before You’re 12!



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Q&A with Debra: handling doldrums and feeling behind

Is it spring yet?


Is it spring yet?

Is it spring yet?

Today, I address some of the most common and pressing quandaries of springtime homeschooling…


Q: Everyone around here is either burned out or has spring fever, myself included. How do you find motivation this time of year?


A: Do something new. Decide to take a week and totally break the routine. Brainstorm for ideas with your kids; ask them “what can we do to break the monotony?” You can do a unit study or a service project in your neighborhood. Study the history of your town or go on a field trip. Your break can be as simple as putting aside the regular stuff and just reading a really good book together.


Or tell your kids that you’re taking a break to become experts on something new. And then all of you (mom included) choose a topic and check out books from the library. After learning about your topics, everyone gives a lecture, pretending to be a professor and teaching the others about your topic.


Whatever you do, just make a memorable moment. Those are the things kids remember anyway — exceptions! And then after you’ve had a break, go back to the grind. But you’ll find that those breaks really do energize you.


Q: Help! I just realized my kid is behind in our curriculum. What should I do?


A: When parents tell me a child is behind, I first want to know why the parent thinks so. Is it possible the child is just not developmentally ready for the task at hand? While children go through the same developmental steps in the same order, the pace at which they proceed can vary dramatically. Oh boy — I wish I could convince parents to get comfortable with this truth. God did not design our kids to do the same exact things by 8 years and 2 months. Standardization is a man-centered invention because we are trying to mass educate kids. They aren’t built that way. They are designed for an individualized education. Ask yourself, is my child developmentally ready for this task or subject? What indication do I see that he/she is?


But let’s say a child is behind but is cognitively capable of catching up or doing better.


First, don’t rush to catch up. The initial steps in any new endeavor — i.e. learning to read, Algebra 1, whatever the challenge — should be slow and measured. Let the fundamentals really sink in. You will find the child will be able to pick up speed if he or she really understands the basics.


Second, we have to motivate our children. They are the ones who really have to provide the brain power behind learning. Our job is to give them good reasons for doing so. I found that talking through the importance of a subject or assignment was a necessary step I couldn’t skip if I wanted my kids to be motivated. I needed to learn to listen to what my child thought, and to help each one build his or her own reasons for putting effort into schooling.


Third — and I guess I should have said this first — we have to build faith in our kids. When I would remember to pray with my child before we began a tough subject, everything really changed. Then the focus was on God and how we were asking Him to help us. It took pressure off my child to measure up. It was less a problem my child had, and more an opportunity for God to show Himself faithful and able on our behalf.


Q: Okay, I’ve done all of that. We aren’t going to rush and my child seems willing to put in effort to catch up. How do we do this practically?


A: Here are some ideas:


1. Use the summer for intensive remediation.

2. Find a tutor.

3. Clear the schedule and just focus on the area needing attention.

4. Do it first thing in the morning or when your child is most attentive.

5. Find a competition, such as Math Olympiad or writing contest, to give a child a reason to work hard.

6. Make an incentive chart with a reward at the end that the child values.

7. Make it a team effort, with everyone in the family devoting two weeks to improving in a specific area. Quiz each other at dinner.

8. Find a game that helps kids practice the skills or content in context. We used 24 (a card game) a lot to practice arithmetic and then algebra. 

There are more suggestions in the chapter entitled “Motivating the Reluctant Learner” in my book, The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling.

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Do it Now: Ditching the Fantasy Homeschool and Planning with Reality in View


evaluate-mdBy Joanna Breault, contributing writer


March — it’s the month for buckling down and staying the course, right? Well, right — and wrong.


Right because it does take a lot of stamina to press on when the glitter of the holidays has worn off and the breezes of spring have yet to revive your flagging spirits. The impulse to faithfully put your nose to the grindstone is good.


And yet, if all you’re focused on is plugging away, you’re missing the golden opportunity of early spring: realistic evaluation and planning.


That’s right — evaluation isn’t just for May, when you’re putting together a portfolio or administering standardized tests. And it’s certainly not for July, when you realize you should probably be finalizing some choices for the coming school year. Evaluation time is right now.


Why? Because right now, you’re acutely aware of who you really are as a homeschooler, and who your kids really are as students. 


There’s this thing that happens over the summer, after we’ve had a chance to breathe and get some distance from the day-in, day-out life of homeschooling; it’s called Fantasy Homeschool Syndrome. 


Awash in the glow of summer sunshine, we forget what kind of curriculum we will actually open and use. In our imaginations, we have unbounded energy, unflagging discipline, creativity beyond measure. We lose touch with the kinds of assignments we will hate, the projects we’ll avoid, the books we’ll never open. We envision ourselves as the homeschoolers that we want to be (creative, diligent, free-spirited, rigorous — whatever floats your hypothetical boat) — instead of being informed by how God has actually made us and what is realistic within the boundaries He has given us. 


Not only that, but we lose touch with who our children really are. Weeks after we close that final book and go out for celebratory Slurpees, we fail to see a disconnect between the kid who hates scissors and a lapbook-heavy curriculum. All we hear are the rave reviews from our friend at the pool.


Now is the time to take stock!


Ask yourself honest, detailed questions, based on the real school year you are living right now:

~ What are my strengths as a homeschooler? What did I really dive into and enjoy, and why?

~ What are my weaknesses? What kinds of things (books, approaches, routines, etc.) do I dislike? What am I avoiding and why?

~ What are the other factors I should take into consideration? What are my other “boundary lines”? (Think about budget, part-time work, ministry, care for other family members, etc.)


These questions are your lifeline to a homeschool that truly fits your family. Trying to pretend we’re someone we’re not or have strengths that we don’t means that we are ignoring the graces God has given us. Don’t trade your actual, unique potential for a phantom “you” that is destined to crash and burn because she’s not real.


Now ask your kids similar questions about their current experience. What are they enjoying? Where do they feel successful? What do they dislike? How could school be better? The answers to these questions will be invaluable for shaping next year’s homeschool. Do it NOW, in March, and not in June. Kids forget over the summer, too, and will give you insight-yielding answers like “fine” and “whatever.”


The answers to these questions become your guidelines. They help you ruthlessly filter the vast array of options you’ll encounter at the convention or as you click around the internet. It doesn’t matter how appealing something looks; if doesn’t match the criteria you’ve learned you actually need, it’s out of the running.


When we romanticize our circumstances, we don’t end up with a solution that’s God-breathed. When we fail to be realistic about who we are — and who our kids are — we end up with a plan that might work for someone else, but not for us.


Seize the month of March for brutally honest evaluation — and get ready for next year to be your best yet.


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Aim Academy 2014-2015 Is Now Open

Aim Academy online classes will open March 10th. Full course descriptions, tuition rates, and final schedule for 2014-2015 will be published then.

In the meantime, you can find out more information by contacting our teachers directly here. Our classes are unique in that they are aligned with the SAT subject area tests and CLEP and AP exams. This means that starting in middle school, our classes cover the content and develop the skills necessary to pass these exams by the end of high school.

Students who pass CLEP and AP exams can earn college credit or be exempt from required courses at most universities in the U.S. at no extra cost. Aim Academy teachers are qualified and experienced in their subject area, and also knowledgeable about these exams. Considering the cost of college credit today, our courses can potentially save you thousands of dollars in future tuition fees. Teachers offer regularly scheduled live classes several times a month (2-4 times depending upon the course). These are also recorded. Student attendance at the live webinars is optional.

For more information, visit the Aim Academy section of our website.

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Spring Testing: Lancaster-Harrisburg-Camp Hill

SAT Math Prep

testingRegistration for 2014 is now open

$38/child by Jan 31, 2014
$48/child after Jan 31, 2014

Mar. 26 (Wed) Grace Chapel, Middletown, PA

Mar 27 (Thur.) Farm and Home Center, Lancaster, PA

Mar 28 (Fri) Farm and Home Center Lancaster, PA

Apr 3 (Thur) Camp Hill United Methodist, Camp Hill, PA

Apr 4 (Fri) Camp Hill United Methodist, Camp Hill, PA

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Handout for 21st Century Homeschooling

21st Century HSchooling

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Awestruck Science: Lost in the Wonder of God’s Masterpiece


Web-Ad-300-x-300Need a compelling reason for studying science with your kids? Here are three: Done as intended, it should provide a daily jolt of awe and wonder at the marvels of God’s design. It should also inspire our own creative impulses, because creativity is surely one marvelous way we are made in His image. And ultimately, science should expand our faith in a personal God who knows us by name and has a particular and meaningful purpose for each of our lives. The evidence is convincing and abundant.

Science, as God intended it, should produce joy. If not, we aren’t approaching this subject with a big enough vision.

That’s what Professor V. (Vicki Dincher) and I are hoping to convince you and your kids of at the upcoming Awestruck Science workshop Oct. 24-25, 2013 in Hershey, PA. And we plan to do it with a lot of eye-popping demonstrations, hands-on experiences, and engaging fun. At the end of the day, we want you and your kids to go home eager to dive into your science studies anew. Even better, your kids will be equipped and motivated to initiate their own scientific investigations–you’ll just have to follow their lead.

In the meantime, I am having a blast getting ready for this event: Delving deeply into an investigation of the topics Vicki and I are planning to present is expanding my faith and wonderment at God’s incredible creation and intricate design. We can’t wait to share our enthusiasm with each of you.  Hope to see you there. (Everything you need to know can be found here.)


P.S.Awestruck Science is sponsored by Apologia (our publisher)!


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Making Memories Out of Milestones (Part 2)

megaphone man

megaphone manCall the Media: The bread and butter of your community newspaper is reporting on local school news. These folks will be more than happy to cover your homeschool events, too, if someone just takes the time to give them a call or shoot them an e-mail. Kids love to see their pictures in the newspaper and it lends legitimacy to your educational choice.

Portfolios: It isn’t just homeschoolers who eschew grades these days; many conventional schools are shifting to portfolio assessments. This is a collection of a child’s best work in each subject area and sustained progress is the goal. Submitting an annual portfolio is required of homeschoolers in the state where I live, and what started out as a burdensome task for me became a treasured rite of passage once I brought my kids into the process.  My children kept a file of their work throughout the year; as well as, lists of field trips, activities and books they’d read.  The last two weeks of school were spent sorting through these files, selecting their favorite pieces and photos, revising writing assignments one more time and regluing or stapling projects back together. These were compiled in a 5” binder and decorated with a unique handmade cover. Now that my children are grown, those portfolios bring back a flood of warm memories – here’s where we documented how homeschooling and family life did indeed fit seamlessly together. It’s in the projects, photos and stories we’ve collected and catalogued here.

Celebration Dinners:  One of the easiest and most meaningful ways to mark a special achievement or important milestone for a child (such as, learning to read or sitting for their first SAT or ACT exam) is to turn your family dinner table into a formal occasion. Prepare a favorite meal, ask Dad to make some formal remarks, have everyone stand and toast the accomplishment, clap wildly until the celebrant blushes; then post photos of the evening to your Facebook page. There are appropriate times to make a big deal out of each of our kids and focus the spotlight only on one.

Snow Days, Senior Skip Day, and Wear-Your-PJ’s-to-School Day: If your home school is anything like mine was, then you will not need to organize any of these events – you just have to be a good sport and go along with it when your kids declare they are observing these national holidays. That’s part of the rite of passage – school children in revolt against the powers that be.  You can add to the thrill by initially acting perturbed by the interruption, but then join in the fun by showing off your snow fort building skills and the secret to making the perfect snowball.  Senior Skip Day, in case you’re wondering, is a tradition now at our local co-op – the kids all head out for pizza while their siblings are left behind. And if you’re thinking Wear-Your-PJ’s-Day is every day at your house, then you can change that up by announcing a Dress Up day.

That summit meeting years ago triggered a shift in my approach to home schooling. My purposes were serious and weighty – a better education, I thought, an opportunity to infuse all of life with our faith and values. But my kids wanted a childhood marked by memorable moments of recognition, hilarity and shared experiences with their neighborhood friends. I’m glad they carried the day…because these memorable moments are now my cherished memories from homeschooling, too.


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Making Memories Out of Milestones


family_road_tripOne of the attractions of homeschooling is the opportunity to seamlessly fuse our children’s education with the rhythms of family life. One of the downsides, I learned, is children are never quite sure where they stand in terms of their educational progress.

More than one of my four kids looked confused when a stranger asked, “What grade are you in, Honey?” When they were old enough to realize they could get rewards from local restaurants if they produced a report card, they held a summit and presented their demands:

We want a definitive answer on our grade placement.  We further insist on report cards, recess, snow days, and back-to-school shopping trips. These are basic human rights.

In the early years, I was eager to throw off any trappings of a traditional education. My educational philosophy was learning all the time and the blurring of the lines between family life and the school day was an important part of living this out. It was a shock to end up with children who demanded that conventions be observed. In their view, they were being denied something of value. With experience, I came to see that many of these traditions create touchstone moments for kids—evidence of progress, achievement and maturity. While I loved homeschooling for its flexibility and informalities; my kids wanted a homeschool where rites of passage were duly noted and cultural conventions observed.

Fair enough, I conceded, I agree to your terms, but I’m drawing the line at report cards for French fries. We will mark those milestones that are noteworthy and establish some traditions of our own.

Now that my homeschool days are over, I have the benefit of hearing my adult children reminisce about their childhood and it is those traditions they remember. In hindsight, here are the takeaways I see from making those concessions:

  • Establishing traditions in our homeschools create meaningful memories for our children. These, in turn, contribute to what they value about their family.
  • Marking milestones gives kids a sense of accomplishment, and that produces motivation to keep exerting effort. Without recognition, enthusiasm can flag.
  • Observing cultural traditions; such as snow days or participation in organized sports, gives our kids a point of connection with their more conventionally-educated peers. Few kids want to enter the broader culture without some shared experiences in common.

So what can we do to mark these memorable moments and make them meaningful? First, sit down and decide what kinds of memories you want to create with your children. Settle upon a few traditions you can achieve, especially those where the kids can help. Homeschool parents do not need more busywork or commitments they can’t keep.

Here are some ideas:

Back-to-School Shopping:  During the elementary years, my kids were happy to get new backpacks, a supply of pencils and, for my daughters, the latest flair pens and markers. Even though we weren’t really going anywhere, those backpacks became a great place to keep their supplies organized and out of sight. A lot of deals are available this time of year, but some are reserved just for teachers. Most companies who offer these incentives will extend them to qualified homeschool parents. Just ask.

Once kids are pre-teens, then back-to-school traditions will surely include some serious clothes shopping. Here’s where you can kill two birds with one stone if you are shrewd: Most grandparents are looking for ways to be a part of their grandkids’ education – and at our house we made back-to-school shopping another opportunity for gift-giving (just for grandma!)

Take a Photo:  One homeschool mom in our support group had the foresight to take a photo of her daughter posed on their front porch on the first day of school each year. Those charming pictures captured the history of her daughter’s fashion statements and youthful manias enshrined on each year’s backpack; from Aladdin to Lord of the Rings.

Kick-off Field Trip: This was our family tradition, started when my sons complained about missing out on riding a school bus. I said I’d go one better, and we instituted a surprise field trip, often an overnight, as the official start of each school year.

Family Recognition Night: Our local homeschool co-op ends the year with an awards ceremony that also doubles as a huge church social. Each family is given a table to display that year’s memorable accomplishments:  4-H awards, science projects, arts and crafts, photographs, creative writing or athletic competitions. Students man their tables and share their experiences with visitors and friends.  We found creating a broader audience for student work increases the amount of effort kids put into the work they display. It is just one more way to maximize a learning opportunity.

The evening begins with a short program that features the musical or dramatic talents of some of the students; and the co-op teachers recognize outstanding achievements. The emcee also announces any distinguished accomplishments; such as, National Merit or Eagle Scout awards. The evening concludes with refreshments in the gymnasium. Family recognition nights are terrific PR opportunities to reassure your relatives; and it is a great way to end the school year on a high note by highlighting the progress each child has made.

Part 2 coming soon. In the meantime, how do you mark milestones at your house?

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