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Dear Ms. DeVos, Please Handle Education with Care

I come from the perspective of a student, teacher, former union member, parent, and home educator asking you consider all sides of our educational system.

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Please handle education with care!

Dear Ms. DeVos,

I’m sure you noticed your appointment as the Secretary of Education was hotly contested. Pundits, parents, public school teachers, and politicians all had opinions about why you are not qualified for your new position.

I have my doubts as well. Some of your understanding of educational issues worries me, but we will have to wait and see. I’m willing to give you a chance, but . . .

Before you start this important work, I wanted to ask you to please consider all sides to this educational equation our country is trying to solve.

Educating our children is a multi-faceted problem.

I am a product of our public school system. I taught at public high schools in a union state and in a right-to-work state, and now, I homeschool my most precious student.

So, I come to you from the perspective of a student, teacher, former union member, parent, and home educator.

I understand you plan to reduce the power of the teachers’ unions.

I get it!

I’ve seen some awful teachers with lifelong job security thanks to the union. In some states, the process to remove a terrible teacher is so onerous that hundreds of teachers sit, collecting salary and benefits, until hearings can be held or they’re eligible for retirement. Obviously, change is necessary.

Dear Ms. DeVos, please handle our educational system with care. #BetsyDevos #education Click To Tweet

But I’ve also seen our union stand up for teachers’ rights to a set schedule, equitable salaries, reasonable class sizes, overtime for additional duties, affordable healthcare, etc. I’ve also seen them protect good teachers from from a public that doesn’t always understand the complexity or challenges of a job whose scope seems to grow every year.

Dear Ms. DeVos, You were appointed as the Secretary of Education, but your understanding of education worries me. I'm willing to give you a chance, but . . .

My first request is to treat teachers like the professionals they are. I know your focus is the children, but hear me out.

Teaching isn’t a job. It’s an art.

Something happens inside me when I envision the perfect way to teach an idea or make literature come to life. I bring that light and life to my classroom. Protect our art. Protect your artists.

I’ve seen teachers like me leaving the profession in droves. We aren’t paid or valued enough. Teachers aren’t respected as professionals. We aren’t allowed to teach. Having quality educational artists (teachers) will benefit every child, every school.

I don’t care if my students can pass a Scantron test. I want my students to be productive members of our society, able to write a persuasive letter to their representatives, functionally read books and articles to comprehend the world in which they live, to be curious and question and never stop learning.

Let us do that. Trust us to do that.

Surround yourself with knowledgeable educators that have been in the classroom recently. Always hear our thoughts. We literally are the experts.

Make sure you consider how your initiatives will filter down to the educators, without whom you cannot save education.

Secondly, if your goal is improving education for every child, you have to understand all the parts that go into “school choice.”

More than tuition will determine school choice for many families. Transportation and distance to school are real problems for many parents.

My child would ride a bus for an hour a day to get to our closest public school, you’d have to add at least an hour to get to any private or charter school. I don’t want transportation to steal two hours of my child’s day.

If I had to provide transportation to get her to the school of our choice, most of my day would be just driving her to school and home. I would have to choose between working and getting her to school. The public school at least offers affordable before and after school program and free transportation.

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Will your plan for school choice consider those very real concerns for families in such situations that need free/low cost transportation and before/after school care?

Choice isn’t a choice if it’s still out of reach for anyone.

Transportation and before/after school care are only the beginning of issues that many parents of children with special needs would have in “school choice.”

Most private and charter schools won’t even take students with special needs, of any kind. They don’t have the funds to pay a nurse to disburse medications. They don’t have special education teachers or aides to educate special needs students in the least restrictive environment (or at all). Often private schools do not have the licensing requirements of public school teachers, which includes being versed in educating special needs students.

How will you make all choices attainable for students with special needs?

Will you mandate that private schools MUST open doors to special needs children? How? They are private schools so they don’t have to follow public school guidelines.

How will you truly make this choice accessible for every child? If you don’t consider every child, the public school system will contain only the poorest, most needy, potentially the least engaged students while everyone who can flees to the closest “miracle” school.

I only taught for 17 years, and I can’t count the hours we spent aligning our lessons with the “brand new, miracle” solution that was going to save education. We’d grumble and fuss and do it anyway, knowing all our hard work would be obsolete in a year or two.

Quit throwing away the baby with the bath water!

What we know is that kids need creative, engaged teachers. To be creative, teachers need more planning time: time to study the results of lesson plans and craft objectives based on that data, time to be artists.

The University of California at Berkeley included a discussion of actual preparation hours for class.
The newsletter contained the guidelines that distinguish between a class a teacher has taught before and a new class. For a class taught before, the teacher should plan to spend 2 hours out-of-class for each hour of class for preparation and grading. For a new class, the teacher should plan to spend 4 hours out-of-class for each hour of class.

What I could have done with 2 hours per class?! I got one hour to plan per day (5-7 hours of instructional time) in my school day, the rest came outside of my paid work week.

Which is a joke. Teachers are already working 50, 60, even 80 hours a week. We can’t take any more of the weight of this “failed” education system on our shoulders. Sociological studies show a child’s neighborhood and home environment are more indicative of success than anything else.

How do you plan to change the culture?

Real educational change has to start in our culture. We have to change our ideas of education and intelligence.

Not everyone needs calculus. But we all need to know how to do our taxes! #educationreform Click To Tweet

We have to return to vocational education and tie our core subjects to conceptual and functional learning. Not everyone needs calculus, but we all need to learn to do our taxes.

With the current push for every student to reach proficiency, students at the top are also ignored. We need the freedom to enrich the education for those already proficient. America soared both on the shoulders of geniuses and the backs of those who built their dreams.

Lastly, you may be the first Secretary of Edcuation to truly consider homeschool as an option for parents. I love that! I think homeschool is a great option. My daughter is getting a rich education that includes character building and strong family relationships. It’s beautiful.

America soared both on the shoulders of geniuses and the backs of those who built their dreams. Click To Tweet

Yet, how do you plan to attach funds to a child in a way that protects parents’ rights to homeschool as we see fit? Homeschool parents don’t want government interference in our educational choices. And unfortunately, some children might need protecting from parents (or schools) that would might misappropriate those funds.

How will you balance freedom and protection?

Your statements have been that you intend to turn more control back to the states and communities, but unless you drastically change the property tax method of funding education, nothing will change. Rich neighborhoods will have good schools and poor neighborhoods will have less.

Coming from outside the system, you might just be the voice of reason. You might just shake things up enough to make a difference. But if you don’t surround yourself with seasoned educational experts, veteran public school teachers, you won’t know how your policies will shake out in real life.

Ms. Devos, be the best kind of leader. Find the best of the best educators and educational law experts and educational financiers and listen to them. Put them in a room and let them brainstorm. Throw in parents from all different backgrounds.

And please take them seriously.

Because we all have skin in this game. And we, parents and teachers, are playing for keeps.

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A Secret Gem in Learning Websites for Kids

Finding excellent learning websites for kids can be trial and error, so when I find a secret gem, wonderful and worth paying for, I want to share it!

Finding excellent learning websites for kids can be trial and error, so when I find a secret gem, wonderful and worth using, I want to share it!

It’s back to school time and parents everywhere are hoping to empower their children to rock this school year.

Whether your children do school at home or in a more formal setting, we all want our kids to learn and love to learn, but we don’t always feel qualified or capable to help.

From backpacks to new glasses, we want to equip our kids to do well this school year. Click To Tweet

Even as a certified high school teacher, educating my own child can be a bit overwhelming. Did I cover all the skills she needs? What if I miss something? Did I give her enough practice? and am I doing this right? (Especially in math, my own weakest subject!)

Learning websites for kids can be a wonderful way to supplement your child’s education and give educators peace of mind.

But there are so many!

A google search  of ‘learning websites for kids’ literally brings back 33 million search results.
Out of 33 million search results for learning websites for kids, don't miss this secret gem! Click To Tweet

As we finished kindergarten, I was searching for online assessments to make sure my daughter’s skills were on target and saw one of IXL’s banner ads.

IXL is the world’s most popular subscription based learning site for preK-12.

But I had never heard of it.

When I looked at their site and sample questions, I was hooked.

All the practice drills are separated by the exact skill being measured, so I always know what the question is really testing. When she finishes a subject area, I can see her usage, trouble spots, question log, and progress.

And she reveals awards for every skill completed successfully, like virtual surprise stickers, which are a great motivator!

Finding excellent learning websites for kids can be trial and error, so when I find a secret gem, wonderful and worth paying for, I want to share it!

I contacted them at once about reviewing their site. They did offer me a subscription so that I could try all their features for the review, but I plan to pay for a continuing membership – this site is THAT good!

Expertly correlated to every state's standards, IXL is a leader in educational websites. Click To Tweet

Each grade level subject area is broken down into sequential skills that scaffold toward the next skills, so I never have to worry that she has missed a crucial lesson or doesn’t understand a concept.

Educator geek out -Every grade, pk-12, has its subjects correlated to your state’s standards. Simply choose your state from the map or drop-down box.

I found very little not to love about IXL. My primary criticism is pre-k, kindergarten and first grade do not have all four core subjects available at this time, but I know they are working on adding them.

Having all the answer choices adjusted to fit the screen would limit the need to scroll, especially when it isn’t clear how many choices there are. Additionally, I wish when she clicked on “keep practicing,” she was immediately directed to the next skill instead of back to the rather formal looking list of skills.

But these are very minor concerns for me.

Why is this worth paying for?

IXL’s learning website is excellent for students who don’t always fit perfectly into one grade level box. We have access to all subjects and grade levels with our subscription.

Also, the content is varied, so students don’t see practice questions repeated, which means you can know your student has really learned a skill, not just memorized the correct box to check.

They even have an iPad app. I believe, iPhone and Android are in the works.

Value – While some free sites offer some of this content, none that I’ve found offers this level of quality or comprehensiveness in all the varied subjects as does.

Other web-based educational sites can cost $19.95 or more per month, for less than the equivalent of 4 months of those subscription services, we can get an entire year to learn and practice.

Classroom Teachers

IXL is expertly created to be internally and externally validated as a skills practice and assessment tool.

All that time trying to sort data from assessments to see how my students are doing is done for me, by the site. IXL breaks down which question or question type students are failing, as well as what percentage of students have achieved mastery or proficiency.

Additionally, IXL has a professional community to offer support and suggestions for using the site.

Lastly, my daughter loves it. She really enjoys playing on the site. She is excited about learning, revealing her awards, and having fun.

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My Best Lessons from our First Year Homeschooling

Homeschooling is more than just teaching school at home. Even after 17 years teaching public high school, I had so much to learn this first year of homeschooling.

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Homeschooling is more than just teaching school at home. Even after 17 years teaching public high school, I had so much to learn this first year of homeschooling.

Last summer, we decided homeschooling was our best option and love the flexibility for scheduling and curriculum choices, and the joy of learning together. Homeschooling has brought our family much closer.

I knew homeschooling would be educational – I didn’t realize all I would learn as the teacher.
1. The most important lessons aren’t always in the curriculum.

I learned that teaching one child I love is very different from teaching a beloved subject to 100 children. Structuring lessons around her meals, moods, and skills, I’ve gained a new appreciation for how many factors affect learning.

I knew homeschooling would be educational - I didn't know all I would learn, as the teacher. Click To Tweet

She had to learn about school. We had to address everything from paying attention to holding pencils to following directions.

When I focused on the goal of raising a learner, not just the math or reading concept, I was able see skills as building a foundation for her future.

To start, I had to teach her to fail.

When something wasn’t immediately clear, she would freeze and melt down rather than make a mistake.

I had to teach her it’s okay to fail:

  • mistakes are how we learn
  • doing your best doesn’t mean perfection
  • not having all the answers is a permanent condition (unfortunately)

Homeschooling is more than just teaching school at home. Even after 17 years teaching public high school, I had so much to learn this first year of homeschooling.

Then I had to teach her how to learn.

More than reading or math, I had to teach her how to tackle problems.

For example, my kid can skim through books using context clues and often guess unfamiliar words, but sounding out words is her kryptonite.

If you’ve ever sat with a six year old repeating, “sound it out; sound . . .  it . . . out; make the sounds with your mouth . . .” Welcome to my world.

Instead of losing my mind, I began calling her a “Word Detective” and showing her all the tricks of word detection, like the silent E that gives magic to any vowel within one consonant of its maniacal reach. . . mwahaha, and makes it say its name, but if two consonants stand in the way, they block the magic from changing that vowel sound!

Somehow, being a detective transformed her desire to problem solve. Eventually, I heard her using those terms in her self-talk. She was able to slow down and work it out.

2. Character education was our most important subject.

Building a foundation for the rest of her education means teaching her character and citizenship: diligence, perseverance, and the fruit of the Spirit.

We practiced doing our best, not racing to finish. Page protectors let us do an activity several times with dry erase markers.

Galatians 5:22-23 ESV  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

We practiced how we show kindness and respect despite rough emotions and difficult days. And we LIVED the lessons from our daily devotions and scripture reading, which taught us both about being more Christlike.

3. Homeschooling doesn’t have to be AT home.

We could use the world to learn. Reading lessons could be a menu or nutritional label for informational text.

Homeschool doesn't have to be at home. Heaven Not Harvard
Here we’re learning what school was like in Laura Ingalls’ day at Old World Wisconsin.

We learned by going to museums, zoos, aquariums, and historical sites. Going fishing could be science class as she watched the clouds or the water, poked at bugs, or noticed the different characteristics of fish.

A trip was geography come to life. This spring she traveled to or through Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Texas, Nevada, and California.

Phew! No wonder I’m tired.

4. Homeschooling doesn’t have to look like school.

Almost anything can be school.

When I voted, I explained the basic principles of U.S. government. Going to the doctor and dentist, we learned about community helpers.

We could study nutrition at the grocery store, use math to calculate the cost of something, fractions cutting her sandwich, or division to share the last of the cookies.

Spending a week at my father’s nursing home, she learned to care for people of all ages, to ignore their infirmities and just see people to love and befriend.

5. Balance is the key.

The beauty of homeschool is the freedom, but we both need some structure to function in the world. Teaching her to follow a schedule was balanced by lazy mornings snuggling and discussing her dream from last night.

A field trip day was balanced by using books and worksheets to reinforce what she learned.

Being together was balanced by teaching her to complete a task alone before we’d review it, building her attention span and confidence minute by minute.

6. Homeschooling is a job.

I had to learn to approach it with professionalism or we’d end up procrastinating and getting side-tracked.

Half my day is cooking and cleaning, so I have to be a master multi-tasker, and accept some things just don’t get done. I have to dedicate several hours per day to school.

7. I learned that sometimes things that seem obvious to me are totally foreign concepts.

My poor girl was grumbling over a math worksheet last fall, skills she had been doing for months, so I didn’t understand what was wrong, only to realize she had never seen a numbered worksheet before.

She was trying to add in the number of the problem, reading –

  1. 2+3 =   as  1 + 2 + 3 and once she got past adding to ten, she was so frustrated.

Poor girl. Sometimes, even us seasoned teacher mommies forget how to start from the beginning.

From that lesson, I learned to ask more questions about what is happening in her head and the importance of clear communication from us both.

Homeschooling is more than just teaching school at home. Even after 17 years teaching school, I had so much to learn this first year of homeschooling.

8. Lastly, I learned I LOVE homeschooling!

We get to explore our world together, making memories everyday, and building a relationship closer than most parents will ever have. Her father and I get to share our different gifts and skills with her. We have just had the most fun learning how to do this together and can’t wait to see what next year brings.

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