Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Brain Patterns

I'm in the midst of an interesting book.

For years, I've been annoyed when parents have cited Jane Healy's Endangered Minds as evidence they should forbid their kids access to videogames, computers, and TV. "She proves that they actually change kids' brains!" they say.

Yeah? And? Don't most of the things we do change us? I've a writer's bump on my right middle finger, my daughter has calluses on her hand from holding her saber so much, and I'm certain that what I spend my days doing creates neural pathways in my brain specific to my activities.

So I'm definitely predisposed to favor Steven Johnson's argument in his Everything Bad is Good For You. (The trade paperback was just published this month, and Johnson has an interesting blog.) The subtitle pretty well summarizes his contention: "How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter." Johnson cites examples from different eras in TV, in videogames, and on the Internet to argue for their increasing complexity over the years. (It's hilarious to compare his little graphs of the plotlines of Dragnet to those of The Sopranos.)

So if you're an unschooler worried that all that informal, non-text-based learning may be a complete waste of time, take a look. (It might be nice if a few conventional educators took a peek, too, though I'm not holding my breath.)

Monday, May 22, 2006

Had I But Known . . .

Years ago, before I wrote my first homeschooling book, I used to edit California HomeSchooler. One of the regular features I wrote was a column for new homeschoolers.

For one issue, I asked several homeschooling parents I knew what they wished they'd known when they were first starting out, and the answers I got were nearly unanimous:

Relax. Don't worry so much.

And now, with half a dozen completed questionnaires returned already, it looks like things haven't changed much. What do homeschooling parents most regret? That they worried so much. That they didn't relax and enjoy life and their kids more.

I wonder whether anyone will regret having been too relaxed. Or perhaps that's like the old cliche about dying: Nobody ever wishes they'd spent more time at the office.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Friday, May 19, 2006

Freaky Thinking

In college I hated economics. I could never wrap my brain around that whole concept of "economic man," that bizarre entity whose perfection consists in making decisions based solely on economic self-interest. No real human acts that way (with the possible exception of the current administration in Washington, but that's a whole different argument), so economic theory always seemed pretty abstract and (dare I say it?) meaningless to me.

Once free of intro econ, though, I found more intersting economists to read--people like John Kenneth Galbraith, and more recently, Robert Reich and Paul Krugman. And I've become a fan of Freakonomics.

The monthly Freakonomics column for May is a perfect example of the sort of economics I love—and it's even completely relevant to homeschooling. How can you go wrong talking about how the way to get good at things is to do them? Take a look—it's a good little read.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Back to Work

We're back. Fun trip—for some reason, I always enjoy the drive to Las Vegas and back, and Christie had a good tournament. (Well, yeah—she's now the current Pacific Coast women's saber champion.)

Even better, I've received my first questionnaire back. So now the next stage starts, where the responses I get begin to reshape my original concept. That's one of my favorite things about writing books—what you end up with is always so different from what you expected (and usually, more interesting, too.)

Friday, May 12, 2006

On the Road (Again)

Christie and I are off to Las Vegas for the Senior Pacific Coast Championships today, so I'll be online only sporadically. If you email me for a Viral Learning questionnaire, don't worry if I don't get back to you right away. If I can't respond within a few hours, I'll definitely get back to you on Monday.

Time to hit I-5 and crank up the old iPod . . .

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

It's Started

I've finished my questionnaire for the Viral Learning book, and last night I sent out a few emails announcing that it was ready to go and asking for volunteers to take a crack at it. In the first 12 hours, I answered more than two dozen requests for it, which is a good start.

It's not a check-the-box survey—it's a long list of open-ended questions that could take hours (or days) to answer completely. I don't expect that will be too much of a problem—I have never found homeschoolers lacking enthusiasm when it comes to talking about homeschooling. With my previous books, the big problem was picking and choosing which parts to use from the huge volume of terrific material people sent me.

If you're interested in participating, and you've been homeschooling for ten years or so, drop me an email, and I'll send you the questionnaire.

This is where the real fun starts—I can't wait to see what people have to tell me.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

When Worlds Collide

I've always been interested in the variety of subcultures that make up our society. When my older daughter took up Irish step dancing back during the Riverdance mania, we discovered a whole world of Irish music and dance, and cultural organizations we had no idea existed.

Homeschooling is certainly such a subculture. More than once I've had the odd conversation with an acquaintance who says that they've never met any homeschoolers, and they've been surprised to learn that not only were my family homeschoolers, but a couple of other families we knew in common were, too. It's easy enough to float along through our daily routines without noticing all the varied subcultures impinging on our lives.

For the past six or seven years, two subcultures have held most of my attention. One, of course, is homeschooling, though since my daughters reached their teens, I've been less involved with its movement and social aspects.

My other subculture has been competitive fencing. I'm not a fencer myself, but both daughters have been saber fencers, and the younger is currently nationally ranked and soon off to college on an athletic scholarship. Because of their involvement—and my own inability to tolerate watching them compete (the suspense is literally stomach-churning), I ended up volunteering to help out at tournaments. These days, as part of US Fencing's national tournament staff, I often even go to tournaments my daughter isn't fencing in.

My two subcultures differ in one significant way: Homeschooling is essentially a young group, composed of kids and their parents. Sure, there are parents in their 30s and 40s, and even into their 50s, and the occasional grandparent who is homeschooling grandchildren, but you don't regularly meet that many older or elderly people in the homeschooling community.

Fencing is entirely different. At US Fencing's Summer National Championships, you'll see fencers under ten who are barely taller than their weapons, and it's not unusual to hear a medalist in one of the veteran events announced as having been a fencer for 60 or 70 years or more. For an individual sport, fencing is an incredibly social undertaking, and it's that rare sport which keeps its adherents to (very) old age.

There's an explicit imperative for older fencers to pass on their knowledge and skill to younger ones, and you see it at every level. My girls learned not only from their coaches, but from other fencers ranging from a year or two older through middle-aged adults and on up to the oldest veterans.

And it's not just the competitors. When my daughter earned her referee license, at first she was paired with experienced referees at national tournaments. Even after the more or less official mentoring was done, most of them have continued to offer her advice and encouragement, and take an interest in her progress.

And then there are the stories. Lots and lots of stories. It may be that fencers like to talk about fencing even more than homeschoolers like to talk about homeschooling. Some of my favorite times at national tournaments have just been sitting at lunch, listening to a dozen referees (fencers all, at least once upon a time, and many still) try to top each other's tales.

Of course, it's not all kindness and caring. There are tantrums and tirades (as often, though, from coaches and officials—and parents—as from fencers), general crankiness, and sometimes, just plain rudeness.

But it's always fascinating.

Strangely, though, my (mostly) separate worlds are running into each other more. There have always been a few homeschooling fencers—some of us have known of each other for years, though it's never mattered much in that context—and there are certainly more homeschooling fencers than there used to be, just as there are more homeschoolers everywhere.

But suddenly there seems to be a minor flurry of people in the fencing world recognizing me as a homeschooling writer. It's a bit disconcerting when what my older daughter mockingly calls my Famous Homeschool Author persona (FHAp) drifts into my fencing world. That FHAp talks far too much and too assuredly (that is essentially her job, after all) to fit into the barely managed chaos of fencing tournaments. I think I'm happier when she wanders back to the subculture she belongs in.

Making Learning Work

One of the many Daily Kos regulars I enjoy reading is Teacherken, who nearly always has interesting things to say about learning. (And yes, I do believe that public school teachers are often worth listening to about education.)

I was especially struck by this quote today. I plan to save it for those moments when I've just listened to some dogmatic homeschooling parent rant about how their way is the only proper way for real learning to occur.
Teacherken in Washington Post: "Kenneth Bernstein, a teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt who tends to be on the progressive side of the argument, said, 'I have no trouble with people trying a variety of approaches to education. What is, in my opinion, most likely to make a particular approach successful is that the persons using that approach believe in it, get a buy-in from students and parents and not apply it rigidly when the needs of the students are otherwise.'"

My family has always taken an informal approach to learning—I did, after all, write a book on unschooling—but beyond that, I've always had a pragmatic approach to learning. Whatever works is what we need to do. There is no place for ideology in making learning work.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Eudaimonia & Flow

One of the best things about homeschooling for me and my daughters was always that we could tweak our circumstances to maximize the opportunities for what psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi called "flow," that feeling of total engagement and well-being you can get when whatever you're doing is going really well.

Flow is closely related, I think, to one of my current favorite words:
eudaimonia -- That particular kind of joy you feel, when you're doing something at which you excel. The joy of the virtuoso, of performing a function well; the feeling of well-being from excellence or skill of a particular thing, no future goal being in sight.

Writing is one of those activities that can provoke these states for me. Not always, and hardly ever when I expect it, but every once in a while, usually late at night when I've planned to go to bed early but decide to finish just one more sentence—well, maybe just this one more paragraph, or I suppose I could go ahead and finish this section—and then suddenly it's 3:30 am, and I've been completely unaware of the passage of time, my neck is knotted up on one side, and as I stretch, I realize that my fingers and wrists ache.

But I feel great—who wouldn't? (And I've been known, under such circumstances, to celebrate a bit before finally wandering upstairs into bed, by indulging myself with a little Scharffen Berger 80% or some Ben & Jerry's Dublin Mudslide or Brownie Batter.)

One of the tweaks, of course, that helps me fall into those flow states, is music. I remember, as manuscript deadlines approached, and more of those late nights became necessary, being thrilled with that newfangled feature of my then-laptop: the CD drive. I could play my favorite music on my computer, with headphones, into the early hours of the morning. Sometimes, a particular album would obsess me—Eileen Ivers' fiddle music worked for a week or two, I remember—I'd play it over and over until I finished the chapter I was working on.

Half the time, the last song would end and I'd suddenly realize I'd been typing in silence for half an hour, I was so absorbed in what I was writing. Eventually, the silence would get to me, and I'd have to decide whether to play it all again or change to something else.

Now, of course, the technology is vastly improved—I can resort to custom playlists and thoroughly indulge my musical moods when I sit down to write. (Tonight, it's Nina Simone.) And it's rare to see Christie sketching or reading or working trig problems without her iPod—she seems to have adopted the family flow technique, too.

. . . And Strange Blog Mysteries

I've been clicking on the "Next Blog" button today, just to take a look at other blogs and what other people do with theirs, and I've discovered a couple of puzzles.

Why do so many men choose black backgrounds with tiny, colored text? Are they trying to scare people off? Is it some sort of territorial imperative, to keep your space private?

Why are so many people so confused about commas and apostrophes? Are the distinctions between plurals and possessives really all that tricky? Are we doomed to comma splices becoming standard English?

Obviously, despite the fact that I've not done any major writing projects for the past couple of years, I'm still obsessed with making things as easy as I can for the reader. I know I sometimes drive my daughters and husband nuts with my incorrigibly editorial eye, but I want readers to focus on the ideas and not get bounced out of context or distracted by some silly avoidable glitch in usage or grammar.

I suppose that's one of the qualities that makes me a writer—I like communicating clearly. I don't always manage it, but I can't help trying.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Ah, the Power of Blogs

OK, the last time I created a blog, it drew no response whatsoever.

Creating this one, I was in full "getting things set up" mode—I figured I would set it up, and make some appropriate changes to my Authors Guild website, and finish the book questionnaire, and eventually start emailing and posting around the homeschooling community online to recruit some respondents for the questionnaire. And after a while, I'd get some action here.

This blog, though, had the right title or keywords or maybe it's just the right time for this book. Within hours of creation, there were comments. And there've been emails. And my list of people to send the questionnaire to is growing apace.

So today I'm resolving to work on the questionnaire so I can send it out sometime this week. After all, the sooner it's out, the sooner the responses will come in, and the sooner the book happens. (And finishing it this week means I won't have to feel guilty about it when I'm watching Christie fence in Las Vegas next weekend.)

Saturday, May 06, 2006


I'm a publishing orphan. My homeschooling books were published by a small independent publisher which eventually sold itself to Random House, a decidedly large internationally-owned publishing conglomerate. The books are now part of Three Rivers, an imprint of Crown Books Group, part of Random House, part of Bertelsmann AG. The few book proposals I've submitted to them have been rejected as good but addressing niches too small for them. (I gather they're looking for 100,000 copies to sell in a year instead of the nice, steady 3,000-4,000 copies per year my books have averaged.)

But I've never been interested in writing books just to have something to sell. I've always had this weird urge to actually have something new to say, instead of just rehashing or rearranging the same things I've said before--which is why I haven't written another homeschooling book since The Unschooling Handbook. I'd pretty much covered everything I'd had to say about homeschooling (or at least, everything book-length).

But now I've got something to say on the subject again, and I'm going to ask a few friends to help me. Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the original publication of The Homeschooling Handbook, and I intend to write a "where are we now and what do we think of our homeschooling lives?" book. Let's take a look at what we've done, and how we think it's worked--it's about time for a book about the long-term effects of homeschooling, from the point of view of homeschoolers themselves.

But this time, I'm not sure I'm ready to work again with what the publishing world has become. I'm leaning toward POD publication--that homeschooling-induced orneriness finds the idea of TOTAL CONTROL over a book seriously appealing. (No arguments about obnoxious or ill-informed cover copy or illustrations of moms in aprons standing over the kitchen table supervising their kids' seatwork--what an idea!) And since homeschooling is such a niche market, and I know that niche far better than your average international publishing conglomerate, distribution and marketing don't hold quite the terror for me that they once did.

So if you're one of the original contributors to any of my books (but especially the original HH), or if you homeschooled your kids for a decade or so, and think you would be interested in helping with this project, let me know.

I'm working up another little questionnaire.

Learning to Live with the Virus

Empty nester?

Former homeschooling mom?

Homeschooling parent alumna?

It's been a few years since I've really thought about my status as a homeschooling parent. Since my daughters became teens, we've focused more on their specific interests and have been less involved than we used to be with the homeschooling community, whether the local group or the larger state and national organizations we've worked (and played) with in the earlier years. Their theater and competitive fencing have been fairly absorbing activities and haven't left me time to think much about my own role as a homeschooling parent until recently.

But now that my younger daughter is making arrangements for her college orientation and dorm housing, the fact that within only a few months I will no longer have a homeschooled child around has got me thinking again about the ways we've learned all these years and about the effects our homeschooling life has had, not just on the girls, but on all of us. I've always thought of homeschooling as an insidious, infectious activity, and often joked at homeschooling conferences about how easily parents can be affected by the contagion--homeschooling's a kind of cultural virus that changes, perhaps permanently, the ways we deal with the world.

Considering how I will spend my time and energy once Christie leaves for school, I've found the idea of working at a conventional job somewhat daunting. It's not that I don't want to work--it's that I've been spoiled. Before the girls were born, I'd been a teacher, and I'd worked retail, selling books and then computers, but once the girls were born, I've worked only part-time or intermittently (with commensurate income), mostly from home, as a writer, as a homeschooling activist, and as a fencing official. For the most part, I've been able to choose how I spend my time and how much time and energy to devote to each activity I've undertaken. Naturally enough, I'm reluctant to give that up, and our homeschooling life accounts for a great deal of that ornery independence, and almost all of my faith that I can figure out a way to avoid falling into that retail rut again.

I think I've got a plan . . .