The first trimester of this school year just finished and all of my group homeschool classes are now officially on vacation until January. It’s been an interesting few months.
In many respects, I am very happy with how things are going.
- The “seriously academic” classes I have (i.e., the students were carefully screened for admission to the class, they get grades on projects and they take tests) have been performing really well. The kids have overwhelmingly shown subject mastery with their tests and have turned in some really lovely projects. I am proud of them! And I feel confident that they are on track to rock the various regents and SAT subject tests that they will take. (Yes, testing isn’t the be-all and end-all of education, but getting good scores is critically important for homeschoolers who want to transition to high school or who are preparing for college admissions.)
- From a classroom management perspective, all of my classes are in a good place. Classroom management hasn’t been a problem for me for a long time, but I remember those painful first couple of years and I doubt I will ever take this for granted. Some of my classes are easy, filled with charming children who love to please. However, I also have classes with a high percentage of difficult students. Mostly, these students are challenging because of neurological problems such as autism and severe ADHD. In a few cases, kids just have under-developed social skills. I am grateful that I now have the skills to keep even relatively challenging classes orderly and moving forward.
- I feel more on top of lesson planning, grading, and logistics this year than ever before. An important reason for this that I am teaching in fewer locations than last year and I built in organizational time for myself before and after my most logistically challenging classes.
- I am serving some of my most challenged students very well. In particular, I am pleased with the way that a boy in my elementary school science class is doing. I’ll call him “Pete.” Pete is intelligent but he has multiple and severe learning disabilities including dyslexia and ADHD. He is probably autistic. He has tremendous difficulty with impulse control. He attends class with an adult assistant. He has responded better than I had dared hope to my class – he often struggles but he never gives up. He eagerly comes into the room when class starts and tells his parents that he loves science. His class participation has shown dramatic improvement since the beginning of the year. Together, his adult assistants and I have been able to keep him truly focused and engaged. Critically, we have been able to do this without holding back any of the other students. Philosophically, I believe in the value of fully inclusive classrooms. Practically, I think this class is a good illustration of how inclusive classrooms can succeed.
Of course, in other respects I am not satisfied.
- My middle school STEAM class and one of my high school biology classes have students who are exceptionally heterogeneous in their academic accomplishments and their abilities. For example, in STEAM there are multiple students who struggle to divide 15 by 4. Shockingly, one student wasn’t aware of decimals (he didn’t know there was a difference between 25 and 2.5). Other students in the class are learning algebra. In addition to the differences in knowledge, there are also multiple students with very serious learning disabilities. I am working hard to differentiate learning and meet all of the students where they are, but there are limits to what is possible. I know I am not challenging the students who are more academically advanced, and I feel very dissatisfied with this situation. Furthermore, I am worried about the least accomplished students (how will they succeed in life with such weak skills?) but I know I can have only a limited impact on them. This is a frustrating situation and one that may not have a real solution.
- I have not found an effective way to speak with homeschool parents about children who are behind academically. I’ve tried many approaches over the years, but with only a single exception, every time I have spoken with a parent about a child’s academic weakness the child has been pulled out of my class. I am really struggling with the ethics of this situation. Am I doing more harm than good by speaking with parents about this? Do parents have a right to know about their child’s challenges even if past experience tells me that informing parents will cause the child to end up with even less academic exposure? Is there a problem with the way I speak with parents or is it simply a cultural gap between myself and large portions of the homeschool community?
- I have not always been prompt enough about returning phone calls and emails from parents. I think there may be a logistical solution to this problem – I need more periods during the day when I have both the time and a quiet place to take care of emails and phone calls.
- Quite a few of my students are really struggling with managing their emotions and dealing with interpersonal relationships. I’ve been trying to stay ahead of the curve by talking clearly and specifically about my expectations for behavior, but it’s not enough. The more I think about it, the more I believe that many of the kids need consistent expectations from all of the adults in their lives. Unfortunately, in the homeschooling world a student often has teachers who have never even met each other. And of course, parents have wildly varied approaches. Consistency is elusive. There may be a way to handle this better that I’ve been handling it, but unfortunately, I haven’t thought of it.